WASHINGTON — In the wake of the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655, the situation in the Persian Gulf seems likely to deteriorate in the coming weeks and months. What, if anything, can the United States do to prevent such a development and advance its own interests in this region? Does U.S. policy sometimes provoke the very violence and instability it is supposed to deter? Moreover, given America's earlier failures in the Middle East, even if a sensible policy is promulgated, is the U.S. government capable of implementing it in a coherent, disciplined fashion?
The United States has vital interests in the gulf that must be protected and advanced: access to oil supplies; the independence and territorial integrity of the gulf states; an end to the Iran-Iraq War without victor or vanquished, and preventing expansion of Soviet influence.
Since the fall of the shah, Washington has pursued these interests through a variety of diplomatic, military and economic means. Regardless of the apparent logic of each policy initiative at the time, none has met the central challenge to U.S. interests: the virulent anti-Americanism of the leaders of the Iranian Revolution.
Iranian hostility toward the United States has been politically and culturally institutionalized in the first decade of the Islamic Republic's revolution. This hostility has been further reinforced by America's gulf policy over the past year, culminating with the tragic deaths of 290 people aboard Iran Air Flight 655. Though the defensive action taken by the U.S. cruiser Vincennes was justified, the short-term result is a further escalation of tension between Washington and Tehran--which Iran's most radical leaders will exploit to strengthen their domestic positions and achieve one of the revolution's fundamental goals: eradication of U.S. influence in the gulf.
Tehran has pursued this objective indirectly and directly. For the past 10 years, the Arab states of the gulf have experienced Iranian-inspired terrorism, subversion, religious demonstrations and riots and attacks from Silkworm missiles and heavily armed speedboats. To date, Arab leaders have not been intimidated, due in part to a U.S. willingness to act militarily and assist in confronting Iranian threats.
Recently, signals emanating from Tehran suggest that the internal debate over the future of Iran's foreign policy has intensified. This debate appears linked to Iran's recent setbacks in the war with Iraq and renewed political maneuvering in anticipation of a succession struggle. Notwithstanding the initial strident calls for revenge issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and others, the ever-pragmatic Speaker of the Assembly, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, seems intent on pursuing a diplomatic course aimed at reducing Iran's international isolation while conducting a political offensive against the United States. The Iranians will probably use every available multilateral forum to generate pressure on Washington to withdraw from the gulf. Possible venues include the U.N. Security Council, the Islamic Conference and perhaps the Nonaligned Movement. While recognizing the futility of such efforts, Tehran can use the process to garner sympathy and break out of its international isolation.
Unable to confront the U.S. fleet directly, Tehran and its allies--Syria, Libya and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah--will seek to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities through unconventional means. Based on bitter experience in 1980 and 1984, Americans must assume that the Iranian leadership will exploit the media and political divisions surrounding the U.S. presidential election and, as in Lebanon in 1984, prompt a unilateral withdrawal.
Whatever course the United States pursues, it is essential that America not allow itself to be forced out of the gulf. The fundamental coin of influence in the Middle East, for better or for worse, is the perceived willingness to use military means to protect national interests and the political endurance necessary to sustain a commitment. The loss of respect and the damage to vital interests that would result from a failure to sustain the military component of America's gulf policy is immeasurable.
In light of this military reality, and faced with Iranian hostility, is it possible to promulgate a policy that advances U.S. interests while also undertaking initiatives designed to reduce tensions and eventually lead to a resumption of U.S.-Iranian relations? These objectives appear mutually exclusive. But living with contradictions is the rule in the Middle East, not the exception. It is therefore crucial for the United States to fashion a policy that engages Iran on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests--without betraying political or military weakness.