On U.S. Army maps the area of Iraq and Iran on either side of the Shatt al Arab River is shown in white, indicating uninhabited marsh and swamp. A warning indicates that "border demarcations are subject to international dispute." It was here, at the tip of the Gulf, variously called Persian or Arabian, that a British expeditionary force first landed in 1914 to drive the Turks from Mesopotamia, and to establish ultimately the independent state of Iraq as it is known today. The expedition's political adviser, Sir Percy Cox, warned his superiors that "the position of our ships in the [river], from an international point of view, is undoubtedly a weak one."

Cox's warning echoes ironically through more than 60 years of disputes between Iraq and Iran, together with Turkey, the European powers, the United States and the United Nations, all of which have been involved in the contention. For in this inhospitable part of the world, neither geography nor international law permits any power to feel secure. So long as that has been the case, military conflict was bound to recur-with ever-increasing seriousness as the oil became more precious and the military forces on each side of the Shatt al Arab grew more potent.

Iraqi maps of the region show Iraqi territory in pale gray and Iran in dark gray. But a large zone, corresponding roughly to the Iranian province of Khuzistan (or Arabistan as it is termed in Iraq), is marked out separately in alternating shades of gray. With a population of ethnic (and linguistic) Arab stock that has coexisted uneasily with the Iranian majority of the country, the area has been a battleground for ambitious regional potentates since ancient times. The Shatt al Arab river is both a natural border line for Khuzistan, between modern Iraq and Iran, and a strategically vital means of access for the cities on both sides.

For Iraq, the Shatt al Arab is only one of its geographic vulnerabilities in the area. Another feature of the map is that, between Fao and Umm Qasr, Iraq has less than 50 miles of coastline on the Gulf-most of it unusable for shipping. The main port, Basra, is nearly twice that distance away from the Gulf, up the Shatt al Arab, and even in the best of times it has a three-month cargo bottleneck. Umm Qasr, the Iraqi naval base, lies on the border with Kuwait, and can only be reached by sea through a narrow passage between the Iraqi shore and Kuwaiti islands. The approach to Fao and the entrance to the Shatt estuary is commanded by Iranian artillery and naval posts on and around Abadan island.

From the Iraqi point of view, hostile hands are always potentially around the country's throat. Like Jordan at the Gulf of Aqaba, Iraq at the Persian Gulf must share its access to the sea with a non-Arab state and traditional enemy. Iraq is also the only member of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) whose oil exports cannot reach the outside world without crossing foreign territory in the north (Syria, Lebanon and Turkey), or without coming so close to Iranian territory in the south that it cannot be said to enjoy territorial security at all for its principal means of survival.

This simplified geopolitical picture of the area illustrates Iraq's strategic predicament-it cannot ensure domestic prosperity without relying heavily on the goodwill and cooperation of a large number of neighbors who depend on Iraq substantially less than Iraq needs to rely on them. When it is internally weak, it must make friends with as many of its neighbors as it can. And when, as recently, Iraq has grown stronger, its ability to put pressure on one neighbor is limited by the willingness of the others to support it or remain neutral. Iraq's international calculations are also complicated by having to deal at once with so many bordering states, at least three of which have recently threatened to disintegrate into conditions of internal chaos and civil war-Syria, Turkey and Iran. (Lebanon, which used to be an active trading partner and port outlet for Iraqi oil, also remains in a parlous condition.) In military terms, Iraq must also calculate that it is within range of fighter-bombers and ballistic missiles from Israel, as well as of U.S. aircraft operating from NATO bases in Crete and Turkey. The Soviets are also within striking distance.

Thus, Iraq's calculation of the tactics necessary to protect its oil resources can easily be thrown off by external developments it can scarcely anticipate, let alone control. There is a strong incentive to take preventive measures, diplomatically, economically and militarily.


The war which began in September was thus a rational, though not inevitable, result of Iraqi security concerns that were heightened by the deterioration of the Shah's authority from early 1978 onward and the advent of the revolutionary regime in Iran.

In October of 1978, the anxious Shah told Baghdad he wanted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini evicted from Najaf, where he had been in exile since his expulsion from Iran in 1964. Baghdad did as the Shah requested, indicating just how compliant Iraq was even at this relatively late stage in the country's recovery from the Kurdish war. That war had ended with the Algiers Pact of 1975, in which Iraq had agreed to trade its claims in the Shatt al Arab for Iranian assurances to end support for the Kurdish insurgency.

In February 1979, the Iraqi government welcomed the Khomeini revolution. But relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly after the middle of the year, when remarks by Iranian clerics renewed traditional Iranian claims to Bahrain, and urged the Shi'ite communities of the Arab Gulf states to rebel against their ruling regimes. Iraq itself reportedly arrested dozens of Shi'ites in Najaf for planning demonstrations, and several were executed.

In October, following Shi'ite demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein issued his first attack on Iran, warning that "Iraq's capabilities can be used against any side which tries to violate the sovereignty of Kuwait or Bahrain or harm their people or land. This applies to the entire Gulf." On the conditions for Iraq's relations with Iran, he added: "The Shah occupied three Arab islands in the Gulf. If the revolution is an Islamic one, then why have they not returned the islands to their Arab owners?" That same month, Baghdad's ambassador in Lebanon told An-Nahar (Beirut) that Tehran "should restore all Iraq's rights in Shatt al Arab by voluntarily agreeing to amend the Algiers agreement and deal with the Iranian nationalities with a spirit . . . which rejects fanaticism and persecution."

After attacks by Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the Iraqi Embassy in Tehran and the Khurramshar Consulate, and the occupation of the Iraqi Consulate in Kermanshah, negotiations between the two sides were abandoned, and there was a steady escalation in the number and seriousness of border incidents.

In retrospect, the fall of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan's government in November 1979, and its replacement by a Revolutionary Council dominated by clerical factions, was the turning point in Iraqi-Iranian relations. With Bazargan's removal the Iraqis lost confidence that the Iranian revolution would be either sufficiently stable internally or flexible externally to contemplate renegotiating the 1975 border agreement. Worse, some factions within the Council seemed intent on destabilizing the border with Iraq to divert public attention from Iran's own provincial conflicts, and to make Iraq appear responsible for instigating the Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Baluchis and Khuzistan Arabs with whom Tehran would not compromise.

It was also apparent that while Bazargan and his Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Yazdi, could rely at one time on Khomeini's support for negotiating concessions to Iran's agitated provincial minorities, the new President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, was much too dependent on the clerics to do so, and was also willing to go along with the clerical forces' plans for instigating Shi'ite subversion across the Gulf and in Iraq. Looking at the balance of the political forces in Tehran at the end of 1979, Iraq decided it would be better off with the return of some of the anti-Khomeini forces in exile, led (nominally at least) by former Prime Minister Shahpur Bakhtiar.

In the first half of 1980, Iraq and Iran launched cross-border raids, artillery duels, aerial dogfights, and political assassination attempts against each other. Iraqi "agents" were regularly blamed in the Iranian media for the rising toll of violence in Iranian Kurdistan and Khuzistan. Yet Iraqi officials still indicated privately that they expected to resolve their differences with Khomeini.

Two events then began the countdown to war. One was the attempt by U.S. military forces on April 24 to rescue the hostages taken in the American Embassy five months before. The attempt suggested to the Iraqis that the United States would either try again, with far greater military force, or negotiate the release of the hostages on terms that would substantially restore American support to the Iranian military.

Then, on July 10, Iranian authorities appear to have foiled an attempted coup by elements of the Air Force, based near Tehran, and by army, navy and police officers in Khuzistan, with the apparent aim of installing Bakhtiar in power. There is no telling what role the Iraqis played, but Iraqi officials acknowledge Bakhtiar as a "friend" and broadcasts on his behalf beamed at Iran had been conducted for months (and still are) from a source located in Iraq.

Once the plot had failed, in any event, Iraq had little hope that the Iranian opposition within the country was strong enough to topple the Khomeini regime. Help would have to come from the outside.

By this point, too, Iraq calculated that in military terms Iran was weaker locally and more isolated internationally than had ever been the case before. In the past, border demarcation disputes between Iraq and Iran had always involved the European powers, Turkey and Russia-and in 1975, indirectly, the United States-and the outcome had generally favored the stronger of the two sides, backed by the strongest of the outsiders. Now Russia and the United States were out of the play, although each might come back at any time. With central authority apparently disintegrating in Iran, and a purge in July of the remnants of the regular Iranian armed forces in Khuzistan, the opportunity presented itself for Iraq to turn the clock back to the favorable border situation it had enjoyed from its independence to the unfavorable agreements of 1937 and finally 1975-and in the process to humble the revolutionary regime, destroy any appeal it might have for Iraq's Shi'ites, and quite possibly create conditions in which it would be overthrown.


But there was one further requirement. Baghdad had to be confident that a military move against Iran would be actively supported-or not opposed-by Iraq's neighbors and allies. That condition would in turn put a limit on whatever territorial objectives an Iraqi assault on Iran might aim at.

In February 1980, Saddam Hussein made a pitch for broad Arab support (excluding Egypt) for his "pan-Arab charter." Essentially that offered promises of noninterference in each other's internal affairs and exacted commitments to reduce and eliminate superpower influence in the region. Most of the Arab states readily, if half-heartedly, supported the charter. It did not amount to a plan of action against Iran, however.

Iran presented a different problem for each of the Arab states. On the positive side, most Arabs were initially relieved at the elimination of the Shah and justifiably optimistic that the Islamic revolutionary regime would actively support the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Arab cause against Israel. But in the year following the revolution it had done very little.

Once the Revolutionary Council had taken over from Bazargan, the Gulf rulers quickly felt threatened by the combination of sectarian appeals and criticism of their dependence on the United States that were beamed at them from Tehran. It was also obvious that none of them could expect to negotiate with Tehran on the highly contentious issues of territorial rights and limits in the Gulf itself.

The stakes there were far greater than the islands of Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunb, which the Shah had taken from the Emirs of Sharja and Ras al-Khaima in 1972. Virtually every one of the Arab Gulf states had had territorial disputes over the past 20 years with the Shah's regime. Since 1934 the Pahlavi regime had asserted a right to a 12-mile "zone of maritime supervision." Then in 1959 Iran extended its territorial waters to the 12-mile limit. The Arabs were in no position to contest the claim militarily. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Shah was also able to extract agreements from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Dubai and Sharja dealing with the demarcation of the continental shelf, fishing zones, and island sovereignty-many of them vague on the exact location of boundary lines and of doubtful legality on the limits of sovereignty.1 And until he formally renounced his claim in 1970, the Shah had threatened Bahrain with annexation.

While the Gulf sheikhs had complained that the Iranian protectorate of the Gulf was an unwarranted exaction, they were content with the dividend it provided-the Shah would not plot with their opponents to overthrow them. The Shah's successors, however, decided to expand the Pahlavi protectorate, at the same time as they canceled the dividend and called on the sheikhs' traditional Shi'ite opponents to topple them.

In May 1980, the Crown Prince of Kuwait and the King of Jordan visited Baghdad for talks. They were followed closely by the Emir of Ras al-Khaima and an emissary from the President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Baghdad's emissaries were unusually busy traveling in the area at the same time. The purpose, the First Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, Taha Yasin Ramadan, said privately at the time, was "to put backbone" in the Arab states. Then, on August 5, President Saddam Hussein made his first state visit to Saudi Arabia.

The ostensible purpose of the visit was to discuss the Israeli decision to complete the annexation of Jerusalem. But in the communiqué and in Iraq's follow-up consultations with the other Gulf states, the emphasis was on "the present situation in the Islamic world," the euphemism adopted for Iran. Toward the Iranian threat, the Hussein-Khalid communiqué "enjoin[ed] that peripheral differences should be discarded and ranks should be closed."

For some time the Iraqi approach to Riyadh has been couched in terms intended to attract the Arab nationalism of the younger, secular-educated members of the royal household and government technocrats, without antagonizing the equilibrium of the ruling circle commanded by King Khalid and Crown Prince Fahd. The result of the August negotiations was that in public the Saudi position was one of benevolent acquiescence in Iraqi plans. In private-though expressed in public by the Saudis' acknowledged spokesmen in the Gulf, the Qataris-the position was more active support covering a range of Iraqi requests in the event of war with Iran.

But until the war began and Iraq pressed its requests, no one in Riyadh or elsewhere in the Gulf could be sure which way the Saudi leadership would spring, publicly or privately. Despite considerable coaxing from Baghdad, the Saudis remained anxious that an open conflict between the Arabs and Iran would provide new opportunities for the Soviet Union-in Iran, as it continued to deteriorate, and in Iraq, if it got tied down in a costly war. To guard against that contingency, Riyadh believed it essential to retain its "American option"-the possibility of an American intervention on the Saudis' behalf-whatever the other Arabs thought.

Jordan's position was more straightforward, by a fraction. King Hussein was not as sensitive about either the Americans or the Russians as Khalid. He had rejected the Camp David framework, and Washington's aid inducements were of diminishing value beside the expanding economic ties between Jordan and Iraq. Port, transportation, banking and investment links have grown rapidly, and have buttressed Jordan's need for border stability with Syria. In the foreseeable future, Jordanian support for a pan-Arab stand against Iran, with the risks and costs underwritten by the Iraqis, appeared in Amman to be a reasonable bargain.

Iraq's proposals evolved through the midsummer negotiations into a plan for stepwise escalation of pressure on Tehran. Although the Arabs felt certain the Iranians would not agree to renegotiate any of the Shah's agreements, there was a strong desire to give them every opportunity to do so. Iraq was committed to a preemptive war and relatively indifferent to the reaction of Iraqi Shi'ites or public response abroad. It agreed with its allies that only after all efforts to negotiate with Iran had been exhausted would it strike across the border militarily. Even then, Iraq undertook to limit military action while offering negotiations. An all-out invasion of Iran was never contemplated. The plan to capture Khuzistan on which these Arab nations agreed was proposed as the last stage in an escalation, for which Iranian intransigence would appear responsible in the Arab and Western worlds.

Baghdad also had to reckon with attitudes that could shift once the assault on Khuzistan had begun. Emirate officials expressed concern that if the Iraqi forces appeared to be digging in for a very long occupation of Khuzistan, Iranian propaganda might succeed in convincing the Arab Shi'ites of the Gulf that a "satanic" Saddam Hussein was indeed planning to annex the province and overthrow Iranian Shi'ism. In that event, Gulf support for Iraq, among the masses if not among the ruling elites, might evaporate.

The paradoxical combination of Iranian expansionism and Islamic radicalism had caught many Arabs off balance. Even as the expansionist threat drove the Gulf sheikhs to make common cause with Iraq-which had itself been no less of a threat in the past-the call for revolution led many of the sheikhs' Arab opponents to side with Khomeini. Thus Iraq's decision to build an entente with the sheikhs and the House of Saud sparked criticism from the Arab Left, particularly from the Palestinian movement. This criticism came on top of at least two years of bitter fighting on other issues between Iraqi-supported factions and others in the PLO, and between Baathists and supporters of the Iraqi Communist Party in Lebanon and South Yemen.

Finally, Syria occupied a special place in Iraq's calculations. Since Saddam Hussein's 1979 purge of several high-ranking colleagues in the Revolutionary Command Council and Cabinet, there had been open rhetorical warfare and some subterranean violence between the Iraqi and Syrian branches of the Baath Party.2 These rifts helped motivate and focus Arab criticism of Iraq's entente with the Gulf sheikhs without being able to influence it much. But had President Hafez al-Assad's strength not been divided between Lebanon and guard duty in areas of serious opposition at home, Iraq would have been obliged to weigh more seriously the possibility of Syrian opposition to war with Iran.

This opposition was anticipated when in August the Iraqi authorities expelled the Syrian mission in Baghdad. The Iraqi mission in Damascus was evicted immediately afterward, and when Aziz Rashid Aqrawi, a high-ranking Iraqi Kurd, defected from Baghdad to Damascus, he was given a platform by the Syrians to attack Saddam Hussein for "leading the reactionary Arab axis to compensate U.S. imperialism for what it lost as a result of the Iranian revolution's triumph." Reports appearing in the Western press at the same time suggested that Syrian military aid and advisers had been sent to Iran.3

In their mutual interest, Damascus and Baghdad have always put limits on their attacks on each other. About one-third of Iraq's oil exports flow into the Syrian refineries and port terminals of Homs and Baniyas, representing a profitable source of Syria's export earnings. Syria's dams and irrigation policies can control the water of the Euphrates on which Iraq depends for its dates and other crops. Iraqi financial aid is a vital element in Syria's current budget, and Syrian defense expenditures produce a useful defensive screen between Iraq and Israel.

Early in the fighting, the Syrian government announced that it had agreed to an Iraqi request to reopen the oil pipeline that crosses Syria to Tripoli, Lebanon-closed down in 1976 by Iraq after a dispute over transit fees. Officials also said they would facilitate oil shipments through the main Syrian pipeline to Baniyas once the Kirkuk pumping facilities had been replaced after Iranian bombing. Although Iraq has begun to shift much of its import trade to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, apparently no obstacles were put in the way of movement of Iraqi goods through Tartus and Latakia, which are important entry points from Europe for machine imports and food headed for Baghdad.

As the war actually developed, Iraqi fear of attacks on the pumping stations-plus the fact that it had ample fuel and financial reserves-caused Iraq to suspend all its oil flow, including the trans-Syria pipeline. But Syria apparently remains willing to have that line operate, if Iraq should decide to re-open it-as it did in mid-November for the northern pipeline to Turkey. (Bazra has of course been blockaded by the war, and oil exports through Gulf terminals have been virtually eliminated at least for the duration of the fighting.)

The Syrian-Libyan merger proposal, announced in September just before the war, and the signing of the Syrian-Soviet friendship treaty which followed soon after, have had little influence on Iraqi calculations-the former because Libya has virtually no influence with the Arab states (little to begin with in Syria), the latter because the Syrian-Soviet treaty simply formalizes a de facto relationship that has been in effect for years, in which neither signatory puts a great deal of confidence. The treaty has not, in Damascus' view, brought about a change in the "quality" of its relationship with Moscow.

Rhetorical attacks and the breaking of diplomatic relations are therefore about the limit of what Syria and Libya have put up against the Iraqi move into Iran. The links between these Arab states can be mended as invisibly as Libya's Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi's break with Yassir Arafat and the Fatah faction of the PLO in December 1979, and in the meantime the mutual recriminations will have about the same nuisance value.

In sum, Iraqi diplomacy during 1980 created an Arab entente that brought together Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the smaller Gulf states in support of Iraq taking military action against Iran. These nations were in general support of the Iraqi objectives of rectifying the territorial problems of the Shatt al Arab, working toward return of the islands Iran had seized, and humbling the Iranian regime so that it would no longer be capable of disruption in the Gulf. But there were also limits to their support: none wished to see the war widened, nor had any faced up to the possibility of a prolonged war or sustained Iraqi occupation of Khuzistan. It was an important diplomatic achievement for Iraq to generate this degree of support, but it was not without limits or conditions as the war might develop.


Iraq's initial war plan was as simple as the classic siege tactics of ancient Mesopotamia. It was to destroy Iran's oil sources, refineries and transportation routes, and by cutting these off from the rest of the country to put the political regime in Tehran in a vise from which neither it nor the Iranian people could break free. Iraqi military actions were also designed to drive Iranian civilians (ethnic Arabs in Khuzistan) from the battlefield and not make them casualties. And, in keeping with the hope or expectation of political change in Iran in which the Iranian Army might play a constructive role, the Iraqis consistently sought to minimize close contact with the Iranian regulars and to distinguish between them and Khomeini's Revolutionary Guards.4 Finally, the Iraqi tactics sought to reduce their own casualties, in particular by making maximum use of artillery and avoiding frontal infantry assaults.

In their first move, which began on September 9, the Iraqis pushed across the central border closest to Baghdad, capturing an area from Qasr-i-Shirin to Ilam, and neutralizing the Iranian air base at Kermanshah. This eliminated a persistent source of artillery attack and strafing raids, and added some protection to Baghdad. Before the Iraqi move, the foreign ministry in Baghdad called on Iran to withdraw from the border zone it contended the Shah had conceded to Iraqi sovereignty. The Iranians refused to respond, and the day before the assault, Iraq warned that its attack was imminent. There was still no response.

In their second move, the Iraqis crossed the Shatt al Arab in an assault on the key cities and oil installations of Khuzistan, from Dizful in the north to Ahwaz, and against Khurramshar and Abadan in the south. Once again, Iraq claims to have attacked only after Iranian commanders had begun fighting on Iraqi vessels in the Shatt and on Iraqi positions on the western bank. Saddam Hussein's announcement on September 17, revoking the 1975 demarcation of the Shatt borderline, followed a similar statement by General Fallahi, the acting chief of the Iranian general staff. The escalation by both sides went almost exactly according to the Iraqi plan.

After some initial successes, the Iraqi offensive appeared to bog down, and enthusiastic claims of the Iraqi information services that towns had been captured were repeatedly confounded by later reports of continued resistance. Those Western reporters who looked for a blitzkrieg, German or Israeli style, registered their disappointment, together with the judgment that Iraqi military commanders had underestimated Iranian resistance, or failed to maintain their momentum. They missed the classic Clausewitzian design, to which Iraq's senior officials constantly adhered in their interviews-the war was an extension of the politics of border negotiations by means of a military siege.

By mid-November, the essential objectives of military action had largely been achieved, though at a cost in casualties undoubtedly greater than had been anticipated. Iranian resistance was persistent, and the Iranian air force turned out to be capable, for a time, of damaging attacks on Iraqi oil facilities. But the main Iraqi military aims had been met by the capture of Khurramshar and the investing of Abadan, and Iraqi forces were laying siege to Ahwaz and were in a position to threaten the capture of Dizful.

Moreover, the siege of Khuzistan and the rapid exhaustion of manpower and fuel for Iranian armor and air forces put Iraq within easy reach of the road and rail links that connected Tehran to the rest of the country and to Bandar Abbas, on the southern end of the Gulf, which was the only Iranian port open to shipborne imports of fuel, food and spare parts from the West. Baghdad could choose to suspend further military operations or expand them, depending on how Iran chose to act. Even if Iran opened up an air corridor into Tehran for arms and other supplies, the Iraqi air force was in a position to interdict the flow before it reached the capital, or as soon as it began the road or rail journey south toward the front. On its own, Iran could not manage either an air or shipborne resupply effort large enough to initiate a credible counterattack in Khuzistan.

But Iraqi military action clearly failed, at least through mid-November, in obtaining the political results Saddam Hussein had hoped for. The regime in Iran held together, with a surge of national unity overshadowing the continued jockeying for power between the Islamic Revolutionary Party and the more moderate forces associated with Bani-Sadr. (As this is written, that struggle appears to be going clearly in favor of the IRP.) And above all the regime has showed no sign of readiness to renegotiate any of the border problems.

On the contrary, the initial Iranian response was to accuse Iraq of promoting the escalation of border conflict into open warfare in the interests of both Israel and the United States. In response to several efforts to arrange mediation through the United Nations and the Islamic Conference, the Iranian position was unanimously and adamantly negative. While there continued to be signs of division among the political factions in Tehran on this, as well as on the issue of the American hostages, the pressure of the Iraqi assaults did not allow any subtlety in the Iranians' negotiating position. Their condition for opening talks was an unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces to within the borders observed since the 1975 agreement.

In the face of this implacable Iranian position, the Iraqis were able to convey more apparent flexibility. They accepted third-party mediation from the Nonaligned Movement, and offered a cease-fire in place if the Iranians would reciprocate. They negotiated the evacuation of foreign nationals trapped by the fighting between the lines or in occupied territory.

More specifically, Iraq's stated terms for negotiations are an agreement to a new border treaty to restore Iraqi sovereignty to the whole of the Shatt al Arab waterway-in effect, a reversion to the pre-1937 status-and the pledge of nonintervention in each other's affairs. It has been acknowledged by the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Dr. Hammadi, that the complex issues of demarcations in the Gulf and the sovereignty of the Gulf Islands could "wait until later."

Yet there remains a fundamental doubt as to what Iraqi objectives may have been, or may now become. Although its actions to date are consistent with the objective of using its territorial gains to put political pressure on Iran for border rectification in the Shatt al Arab and elsewhere, those actions also put Iraq in position not only to take most of Khuzistan and hold it indefinitely, but conceivably to dismember and annex it, sponsor Arab dissidents to establish an autonomous administration, and thus cut Iran off permanently from its oil resource.

Before the war, Minister Hammadi, when asked (by this writer) whether any part of Khuzistan was claimed as Iraqi territory, responded, "We have no territorial claims in Iran." Similar statements were made in October by top Iraqi officials, but by the end of the month First Deputy President Taha Yasin Ramadan, asked what would become of Iran's oil once Iraqi forces had captured Abadan and the surrounding region, responded: "It will become Iraqi oil until a solution is found. Arabistan's oil will be Iraqi as long as Tehran refuses to negotiate."

So the situation seemed in late November to have reached an impasse, with the internal political dynamics of both countries set firmly against any compromise. Unless Iran received some new and clear form of encouragement from the outside, Baghdad was in a position, by the onset of winter, to let weather and economic deprivation take their physical and political toll in Iran, and in the meantime to hold on to its gains or slowly extend them.

Could something happen to change the balance? This depends on the postures of the two superpowers, to which we now turn.


There is no evidence that despite its long-established ties with the Soviet Union, Iraq had Soviet help or encouragement to act. To judge from an unusual pattern of surveillance-satellite launchings on August 26 and September 29, the Soviets may have had advance warning of Iraqi intentions, but they were unwilling or unable to do anything about them. There were no reports in the first two months of the war of a significant Soviet or Eastern bloc resupply effort on Iraq's behalf. Tariq Aziz, a Deputy Prime Minister, flew to Moscow on September 22, but the purpose of his visit was to brief Iraq's Eastern allies, not, according to Aziz, to seek help. Given the careful preparations and stockpiling in which Iraq had engaged before going to war, it seems evident that Iraq has not been dependent on continued Soviet military supply lines, although it has needed civilian supplies that have come through various routes, including the use of Aqaba in Jordan.5

Conversely, there have been reports of Moscow's willingness to tilt in Iran's direction. But while it is in the U.S.S.R.'s interest to increase its influence with Tehran, it is hardly likely to make an abrupt move that risks turning the majority of Arabs, including both Iraq and Yemen, against it. Whatever trickle of arms may have come from Soviet-related sources (such as North Korea), it has not been of consequence.

It is possible that the Iraqi initiative caught the Kremlin almost as unprepared as the White House, and was no more welcome. For more than a year before the Afghanistan invasion and in the year since then, the Soviets have appeared to pursue a very cautious approach in their Arab relations. The visit by Syria's President Assad to Moscow in November 1979 ended prematurely because Assad reportedly felt snubbed by Brezhnev and because Moscow would not agree to Syria's requests for advanced electronic countermeasures equipment and anti-aircraft missile systems for use against Israeli aircraft. Similar requests by Yassir Arafat and the PLO have also been turned down. Advanced Soviet aircraft and tanks shipped to Syria were kept under the close control of Soviet military advisers.

In Iraq's case there have been few signs of change in a relationship with the Soviet Union that Saddam Hussein has characterized as "a real rather than a merely formal relationship." Just as Iraq has criticized Soviet policy in the past-for the buildup of military installations in Yemen and for aid to the Ethiopian regime's war against the Eritrean Liberation Front-official condemnation of the Soviet move into Afghanistan was unqualified and unanimous. Senior Iraqi officials were divided, however, in their assessment of long-range Soviet designs for the region. One RCC member, who would not talk for attribution, said in May that "Soviet strategy aims at Iran, Pakistan, and then to take the Arabian Gulf region under their control. Arab oil is a serious issue in Soviet strategy." In this line of thinking, the Iraqi move in Iran is a preemptive strike against Soviet ambitions, as much as anyone else's.

But on the level of economic ties, there is no doubt about Soviet-Iraqi closeness. In 1979, Soviet exports to Iraq reportedly totaled $1.77 billion. This figure would put the Soviet Union ahead of all other countries as Iraq's major source of imports. While Iraq's oil sales to the U.S.S.R. appear to have dropped in 1979 to 70,000 barrels per day, down more than 40 percent from the 1978 level, its oil sales to Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, which can no longer get the same level of oil supplies from their own wells or from the Soviet Union, continued to rise.6

The Iraqi-Iranian conflict comes on top of several other regional problems facing the Kremlin. Not only has the situation in Afghanistan failed to show marked improvement from the Soviet point of view, but intensive diplomatic and economic efforts directed toward Turkey and Greece have failed to dissuade the leaders of either government from easing their differences, signing new defense pacts with the United States, and moving away from the independent, nonaligned position toward which both countries had appeared to be heading for some time.

In these circumstances it would be understandable if the Kremlin preferred to stay its hand, watch the progress of the war, and avoid having to choose between two countries, which, unlike Somalia and Ethiopia, have a direct impact on the Soviets' territory and economic welfare. The Iraqi military tactics have prolonged the Kremlin's hesitation and perhaps stimulated some impatience. Calculated ambiguity is likely to remain the most profitable course for the Kremlin to follow. The present balanced Soviet position has avoided having to choose, and has also avoided-at least to this point-any serious complications in the Soviet relationship with Syria or as between the various Arab states. The Soviet position with the Arab nations has neither been advanced nor significantly impaired.

Yet as the situation develops the Soviet Union may see opportunities to play a role in bringing peace. Through its strong economic and other ties to Iraq, the U.S.S.R. might be in a position to offer further assistance to Iraq with the express or implicit (but not publicized) suggestion that Iraq withdraw from Khuzistan. And then, using the major Soviet advantage of being able to communicate privately with Iranian leaders, the Soviets might depict their action as one that assisted Iran. It is even conceivable that the Soviet Union might envisage being included in some form of mediation commission, which would have the effect of furthering its status in the whole Middle East.

Further down the line, there is the question of what will happen in Iran in terms of a successor regime. While it is too early to speculate on the possibilities here, the Soviet Union can never lose sight of one of the major stakes in the Gulf-whether a future Iranian regime will be oriented toward the Left and toward the Soviet Union, or whether it might move in a pro-Western direction. In a situation where hostilities had ceased-even though there had been no peace agreement-the Soviets would undoubtedly seek to use every avenue of influence to maximize the former possibility.


The Iraqi decision to go to war with Iran, backed by a solid Arab entente, with the aim of crippling Iran militarily and eliminating its political dominance of the region once and for all-this was not a move that a Washington Administration, preoccupied with internal and external communist threats to Iran, could anticipate or readily cope with.7 In his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980, President Carter had warned that "an attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force." The Iraqi-Iranian conflict clearly threatened the oil flow of the Persian Gulf and in that sense endangered vital U.S. interests, but with such traditional American friends as the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan in support, it could hardly be characterized as "outside interference."

In its enthusiasm for pressing the merits of the Camp David accords on a reluctant Arab world, Washington had been slow to spot Iraq's role in building an Arab consensus behind both the opposition to Camp David and the eventual strike against Iran. Once this began, the U.S. posture at the outset appeared to be evenhanded, with no blaming of Iraq and a steady rhetorical and private emphasis on stopping the fighting as quickly as possible and preventing it from spreading. One senior American Senator is reported to have said: "This is one war we do not need to be involved in."

But the problems of American policy, even in the first phase of the war, were not that easy. If the war had spread to the lower Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz-the lifeline that serves not only the West but many developing nations-it could have threatened tanker traffic at least to the point of making insurance rates prohibitive. Such action by Iraq was hardly conceivable in light of its ties to the Gulf oil-producing states dependent on the Strait. But it was thought in Washington that Iran might lash out in some fashion, or that some provocative action might be taken by third parties.

The U.S. and Western response apparently was to increase naval forces in the area on the basis of bilateral consultations. Happily these forces were kept "over the horizon" and it does not appear that any form of convoy was ever contemplated. Any such action would surely both have divided the allies and been perceived by Iraq as a move in support of Iran, with its remaining port of Bandar Abbas on the Gulf.

In the event the waterways of the Gulf, including the Strait, have remained open. This has been due, however, to the guarantees of the combatants and their respect for world needs, rather than to any real impact of the Western actions. Those actions have been largely irrelevant, although equally they have avoided the obvious pitfalls that would attend any attempt to use naval action for this purpose.

At least as serious, as it was perceived in Washington at the outset, was the danger that Iran might conduct air attacks on other Gulf states, which were supporting Iraq in political terms and were then reported briefly to be providing military aid and sanctuary for Iraqi forces (including dispersed aircraft). In late September, after a trip around Europe that had been attended by reports of other military consultations, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, David Jones, arrived in Saudi Arabia. The details of the negotiations between General Jones and Saudi officials that resulted in the despatch of four AWACS (Airborne Warning and Command System) aircraft to the Saudi Gulf base at Dhahran are likely to remain obscure. A formal Saudi request was made, and Washington's response to provide an early warning and "tripwire" defense for Saudi Arabia was consistent with its neutral stance.8

But neither the Iraqis nor the Iranians saw the move in this light. Iraqi defense officials were concerned that the Saudis were allowing the United States to monitor Iraqi military movements and communications, but their criticism was muted. The Iranians claimed that the AWACS were providing the Saudis with intelligence on Iranian movements that was passed on to Iraq.

Although the AWACS aircraft have operated so far without incident, their deployment was a risky move. It might be remembered that in an earlier era of electronic surveillance, just before Israel invaded Syria on June 9, 1967, an American listening ship, the U.S.S. Liberty, was attacked in international waters off Egypt by Israeli jets. Thirty-four Americans were killed. If Iraq or Iran took the same view of the AWACS as the Israelis did of the Liberty, and acted as the Israeli Air Force did, would it be anticipated that Secretary of Defense Harold Brown would react as Robert McNamara did in 1967 with the statement: "These errors do occur"?

As of mid-October, the dangers of the war widening seemed to have receded, and Washington had stuck to its evenhanded posture without serious recrimination from either side. Then, however, three weeks before the American election, it became evident that the Iranian regime might be moving seriously to settle the hostage issue. At the beginning, Iran's leaders had made the public claim that the United States had been behind the Iraqi military action. Presumably they either ceased to believe this or were persuaded that, in the more pressing situation they now faced, the hostages could be used to obtain American support.

And at that point, hardly by coincidence, U.S. spokesmen began to speak of the military conflict as an "aggression" by Iraq, and the question directly arose (through a response by President Carter himself) whether a hostage settlement might include the release of several hundred million dollars' worth of military equipment to which Iran had acquired title under the Shah. These developments added up clearly in the eyes of Iraq and other Arab nations to a "tilt" on the part of the United States in favor of Iran.

Then, on the very eve of the U.S. election, Iran finally tabled its conditions for the release of the hostages, and these were responded to as "a positive basis" by the United States. Undoubtedly, immediate U.S. acceptance of the terms would have further strengthened the Arab view of a U.S. "tilt," and this was avoided for the moment.

Nonetheless, the question of release of the military equipment still hangs heavy, and the U.S. choice is an extremely difficult one. While the equipment has a large financial value, it is not at all clear to what extent it would be helpful in continuing the war and ousting Iraq from its gains. Nor is it clear how the equipment could be moved to Iran, or whether such a move might incur specific Iraqi action against the ships or planes used. Thus, the practical question contains all manner of doubt and uncertainty in itself.9

Yet, even if the equipment might be of little decisive value, the symbolic impact of its release by the United States could be very great. The resolution of this issue will have an enormous effect on how Iraq and other Arab nations perceive the whole U.S. stance, not only for the future but reading backward, to the beginning of the war.

No matter how the United States hedges in further negotiations with Iran on the hostages, it is hard to visualize the predicament being avoided entirely-unless the United States manages to persuade Iran that in the present circumstances it must adhere to the kind of position it took in the India-Pakistan wars, namely that it would not send further military equipment to either side at least until hostilities ceased. Such a position, of course, could undercut not only the early release of the hostages but any possibility of the United States resuming normal relations with Iran-and thus being in a position to interpret (if not to affect), at first hand, crucial future developments in Iran. The stakes either way are very great in this choice, and it is at least fortunate in hindsight that it was not made in the emotional atmosphere of the last month of a presidential campaign.

But there is one further implication of a possible hostage settlement that has passed almost unnoticed in the United States. Inevitably, such a settlement would involve a lifting of the American embargo against Iran, in which other Western nations have participated at least to the extent of withholding any military supplies as well as large categories of civilian supplies for Iran. With the embargo lifted, Iran would almost certainly seek to increase its civilian imports, and might also attempt to acquire key spare parts and other military items from NATO nations. Again the symbolic effect of such an increased flow might be out of proportion to its practical impact-and in Iraqi eyes much of the blame would attach to the United States.

Finally, if the internal situation in Iran becomes more desperate in the months ahead, will there not be pressure for some kind of humanitarian relief effort? Could such an effort be mounted initially by other Western nations that maintain their ties with Iran, or might there be a role in such an effort for both the United States and conceivably the Soviet Union? And could it be managed in such a way as to separate humanitarian relief from support to Iran for continuing the war?

What the United States must not do, in any event, is to suppose that any action it may take on the hostage problem or by way of relief to Iran will serve to put useful pressure on Iraq to withdraw from Khuzistan. The whole sequence of American actions has appeared to Iraq and to the Arab states as reflecting a bias against them. The United States has no useful leverage on Iraq, and it must reckon that any actions it takes concerning Iran will be viewed with maximum suspicion by the Arab entente.

If U.S. policy is to limit damage and foster a return to political stability and economic normality, then a continued tilt toward Iran makes no sense at all-not even if it is intended to prevent the annexation of Khuzistan. The way to pursue this last objective is to encourage Iraq to withdraw. The only basis on which withdrawal can be negotiated is through the willingness of both Iraq and Iran to make concessions. But a U.S. tilt can only encourage Tehran to believe it can break the Iraqi siege, and to refuse to settle for anything less than a military victory the Prophet himself could not command in the circumstances.

Washington's apparent preference to abandon neutrality, while continuing what Iraqi and many other Arabs see as a direct military involvement in policing the Gulf, also undermines whatever interest Washington might have in dividing Iraq's Arab supporters or persuading them to pressure Baghdad for concessions and an early withdrawal. In calculating Washington's benefits, much is lost if American options and choices appear too predictable in the Middle East. Mistakes, misspoken official remarks, and false starts-in addition to the usual array of misinformation and dirty tricks on all sides-can convey the right amount of uncertainty as to which side Washington is on, and what actions it is likely to take. Much more is lost-irretrievably-if Washington behaves in a predictable and anti-Arab fashion.

Willingness to abandon the Camp David framework for a Palestine settlement, and now neutrality on the Arab claims against Iran, are the tests by which Washington's attitude toward the Arabs will be judged. The diplomatic price of a long-term accommodation between the United States and the Arabs has therefore doubled. If Washington balks again, as it has done on the Palestine negotiations, this can only harden the resolve of the Iraqi-led Arab entente to score a decisive victory in Iran.


To assess the future course of the war, from its present situation, requires-as the preceding arguments suggest-an assumption as to U.S. negotiations with the Iranian regime concerning the hostages. If, as may well be the case because of the financial complications alone, those negotiations drag on for months-or if agreement is reached but the release of U.S. military equipment to Iran seems clearly to be delayed and on a small scale-then the repercussions of Iran receiving American support, of a "tilt" becoming in Iraqi-Arab eyes a downright intervention, will be avoided or at least minimized.

In that event, Iran will continue to stand essentially alone, probably using some of its external assets to increase the flow of civilian supplies and save the economy from falling into truly desperate straits. Short of a change of regime (unlikely unless the Ayatollah should pass from the scene)-and perhaps not even then-it remains extremely hard to visualize Iran being prepared to compromise in a way that would satisfy even Iraq's minimum demands. In a very real sense, the war aim of Iran's clerical leaders has become nothing less than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the only event that could even for the moment restore to some degree a balance of humiliation. For at least months to come, Iran will be, if not a basket case, at least wracked by dissidence in the provinces and a continuing power struggle at the center, in which the search for scapegoats will play a large part.

How would Iraq react to a continued impasse? In domestic terms, the war has caused some disruption, excitement and loss of life, but there is little evidence yet of substantial sacrifice. If Aqaba, Latakia and Tartus remain open for imports, and the northern oil fields are returned to full operation, there is not likely to be a popular backlash against the Revolutionary Command Council or Saddam Hussein. Iranian air attacks have helped raise and sustain morale; the rotation of the popular militia for non-combatant duties in the occupied areas has limited the strain on the regular armed forces; and the activity of the newly elected National Assembly has helped to focus public opinion, reinforce the credibility of the political leadership, and maintain stability.

It should be understood that for all the false bravado, the Iraqis correctly believe that their war against Iran is the first major victory by an Arab army over a non-Arab state in modern history. Iraq's military prowess has long been the butt of Western (and Egyptian) scorn. The war against the Kurds ended in 1975 in a Pyrrhic victory, and in Iraq's brief engagements against Israel in 1967 and 1973 the results were humiliating. Iraqi pride in its present achievement should not be underestimated. Indeed, it is widely shared throughout the Arab Gulf states, where a sense of grievance against Iranian imperialism has been nursed for more than two generations.

Iraqi officials talk of their readiness to continue a protracted war "until a viable and durable political solution will have been found," as one senior official put the position privately. He does not yet admit that what may be durable in Iraqi eyes may not be viable in the Iranian perspective, and vice versa. First Deputy Prime Minister Ramadan has indicated the time scale in which the war is viewed by the Revolutionary Command Council: "For more than one year without the population feeling any effect. We could sustain it for two years or even more by imposing a few restrictions, and our people are prepared to accept them."

There continues to be confidence among the Iraqi leadership that the political solution to the territorial disputes will follow an internal shift in Tehran. If this fails to materialize and the costs of the war sink in, there may be divisions within the leadership between those in favor of staying in place and limiting military action to the Khuzistan region, and those who favor extending the war over a wider area.

Temperamentally, Saddam Hussein is cautious and deliberative and not taken by momentary enthusiasms. He can readily restrain the battlefield optimism of his commanders in their present positions. However, if military resupply enables Iran to exact a higher casualty toll on Iraq's siege forces, or if public expectations of decisive and relatively bloodless victories find expression in the National Assembly and the ranks of the Baath Party, then Hussein will probably widen the war if he can. Ramadan, a former regular soldier and now commander of the popular militia, has answered the question of how far Iraq is prepared to go, with this warning: "We will also strike at all points of military importance within Iran. After that we will see."

But an escalation of the war from Khuzistan toward Tehran itself may deepen Iraq's entanglement without delivering the "viable and durable political solution" it seeks. More likely would be the continuation of air attacks on key targets in Iran, keeping hostilities going at a low level but without attempting to widen the territory held by Iraqi forces.

What, then, of the Arab entente which Iraq has brought into being? If the war is protracted without negotiations, Iraq will find itself in de facto occupation of territory it professes not to claim. Over time the distinction between Baghdad's original objectives and its current position may be erased, and that may encourage Arab defections from the Iraqi camp.

Iraqis are used to isolation in the Arab world, and in the past have been stolidly indifferent to their Arab critics. The geopolitical realities dictate, however, that Iraq cannot allow its relations to deteriorate with too many of its neighbors at once. To this point neither Saudi Arabia nor Jordan has expressed anxiety about the direction of events or the possibility that a victorious Iraq would threaten them. Equally, neither is in a position to mediate effectively-as Iraq itself did successfully in the much smaller Yemen war of early 1979. But over time there could be an influence from this quarter in favor of some degree of Iraqi withdrawal.

As for the impact of the war on relations between the Arab states and Israel, in the last two years Iraq has of course been the successful promoter of the rejection of the Camp David accords. Baghdad has maintained that the states of the Arab League are in no position to confront Israel militarily. It argued instead for strengthening the League's ability to act in concert, and for collective diplomatic and economic measures to isolate Israel, break its trade links with Europe, and sabotage the credibility on which it depends for aid in the United States and elsewhere.

In terms of these objectives, the war cuts two ways. It has solidified some of the Arab states but divided others. On balance, Saudi Arabia's current backing for Iraq is a bigger gain than the loss of Syria and Libya. And Jordan has been even more clearly in support of Iraq during the war.

Much now depends on the course pursued by the new Reagan Administration. If it abandons the Camp David framework and seeks instead to create a negotiating forum in which Jordan and the PLO might participate, and if a Labor Government were to come to power in the 1981 Israeli elections, then the focus would be heavily on Jordan. Would King Hussein, having made his commitment to support Iraq, then be in a position to negotiate on the issues of the West Bank and Gaza, in defiance of Iraq's deeply held views? One can only speculate on this; for the moment the Arab-Israeli conflict has receded from Arab attention, and the circumstances in which it might be readdressed are too uncertain for clear prediction.

But this does not mean for a moment that the burden on the U.S. relationship with the Arab states of American support for Israel will be any less than it has been for years. Even during the past year, such American actions as its resistance to PLO observers at the World Bank meeting, its holding back on tanks for Jordan and on licensing the use of American engines for naval vessels being built in Italy for Iraq, and its stalling of Saudi Arabia's request for new equipment for its F-15 aircraft-actions that in Arab eyes reflected American bias in favor of Israel and against the Arab states-have done much to further Iraq's case for an Arab entente. Arabs are very skeptical that a new Reagan Administration will deal fairly and equally with both sides, and the incubus of American commitments to Israel will continue to haunt whatever openings with the Arabs Washington might attempt.

Finally, there is the crucial issue of the impact of the war on oil supplies and prices. Just how serious the damage to both countries' oil facilities has been is difficult to assess and impossible to predict. Apart from the destruction of the Abadan refinery, which may never be rebuilt, aerial photographs provide no clear analysis of the extent of bomb damage to the underwater and underground oil lines, the refineries, and the petrochemical plants on either side. Both Iran's and Iraq's southern installations are estimated to require from 6 to 18 months for repairs, once the fighting stops.

The damage done to Iraqi oil fields and terminals, while not as serious as the damage inflicted on Iran, has undermined some of Iraq's leverage among the African and Indian Ocean states with whom it has lobbied hard to deny the superpowers their bases, and to adhere to a nonaligned and anti-Israel foreign policy. In the past, Iraq has been able to offer these states reliability of oil supplies, together with interest-free loans to reduce the impact of OPEC price rises. As of mid-November Iraqi oil is once more flowing in small quantities to Turkey and Western Europe through the northern outlets, but Third World clients, including major powers like India, have had to scramble.

Apart from such specific impacts, the overall loss of oil from Iraq and Iran has not yet produced a worldwide shortage, given the decisions of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states (motivated in part by their entente relationship with Iraq) to raise production. But the prospect of the war dragging on, with the continuing chance of further damage to oil installations and the oil flow, has already led to anticipatory rises in spot market prices, and this could well spread as it did in 1979 after the Iranian revolution cutoffs. While it does not look at the moment as if the war would produce a third "oil shock" on the scale of those of 1973-74 and 1978-79, its effect will undoubtedly be to raise further the pace of the real oil price increases that would have come in any event.

Meanwhile, the proposal for firm and unified OPEC price policies that has been urged jointly by Saudi Arabia and Iraq is in abeyance. And with that goes any early prospect for a common OPEC strategy for indexing price rises systematically to the movement of international trade indicators and currency movements. It will take some time for the situation to settle down to the point where this key item on the agenda between producers and consumers (and the broader North-South agenda) can be tackled coherently.


Thus, the war has already had a disastrous impact on Iran and a deeply unsettling effect on Middle East stability and all that goes with it. Even in the short term, the prospect of a continuing war could produce temptations for superpower actions that would bring on some sort of confrontation.

And in the longer term, the consequences of the war could be even more devastating. The hatred left by the war in Iran-and its potential divisive effect among the Arab states-can hardly fail to sow the seeds of eventual further conflict in the area, even if the two principal actors in the war become too feeble or preoccupied to start something new.

In any circumstance, Iran faces not only a critical period of economic deprivation but also-more now than before-the longer term problem of establishing a viable regime without immense internal convulsions. Iran was weak and isolated at the start of the war, and now it is even more so-as well as inflamed with a new set of passions for revenge that can hardly find effective expression for a long time to come. Even if the Iraqis were to withdraw from Khuzistan, this would still be true, with the additional problem to be solved of restoring crude oil production there. To what extent Iran will be able to obtain foreign assistance for this remains to be seen.

What, then, does this mean for the role of the superpowers in the region? It means, above all, that while each may see short-term opportunities, these can be seized only with great accompanying risks. The sharp fault line that has now developed between Iraq and its supporters on the one hand, and Iran on the other, with little likelihood of being eased, means that anything that either superpower does on either side of that fault line risks serious negative impact on its positions and influence with those on the other side.

From the Soviet standpoint, the difficulties may be less than for the United States-because of the specific legacy of anti-American feeling both in Iran and in many Arab states-but they will be considerable. The Soviet operation in Afghanistan may benefit to some extent from Iran's preoccupation with Iraq and its own internal troubles, but this effect will not be great. Nor would the Soviets be likely to feel that they had a new and freer hand, for example, to punish Pakistan for permitting support for the Afghan rebels there. The Islamic Front that manifested itself last winter in denouncing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan-and then in the spring denouncing both that invasion and U.S. hostage rescue attempt in Iran-was always tenuous and is now in disarray. But the Soviet Union must still reckon with substantial hostile reactions to its continued presence in Afghanistan.

The real question is whether the Soviets could improve their position in Iran without offsetting damage to their influence on the Iraqi-Arab side. Clearly a deeply troubled situation in Iran offers possibilities of some turn favorable to the Soviets-but it is too early to say whether there may not be at least an equally powerful trend in the other direction, especially if Iran sets itself to recreate a strong military establishment.

For the United States, restoring any kind of normal relations with an embittered Iran will present enormous problems. Whatever the United States does to assist Iran will have little chance of undoing the legacy of passionate anti-American feeling brought on by the past and unleashed in the last two years.

But there is a wider lesson for American policy that could be drawn from the war. In almost any circumstances, the United States would have been hard put to play a constructive role in stopping or limiting the war. But the actions taken by the United States under the Carter Doctrine-including the development of the Rapid Deployment Force and the arranging of base facilities for American forces in the area-have served to give a military flavor to American policy in the area that has greatly heightened Arab suspicions.

The plain fact is that Arab states, including those who did not support Iraq, are vehemently opposed to any attempt by the United States to act as any kind of policeman of home-grown conflicts in the Gulf. As King Hussein said in early October, the region "does not need an outside umbrella and protection for the interests of this or the other side. The peoples of the area can resort to their [own] umbrella."

This does not mean that the Arab states wish any of their own number to take on the role of Gulf policeman. The fundamental point is that there cannot be a policeman when there is no consensus on the rules for him to apply. And the Arabs believe that during the Shah's period in the role, he used it, with at least tacit American support, to assert untenable claims in Iran's favor, and that these must now be corrected.

The Carter Doctrine and the measures taken under it may indeed have some useful deterrent value vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. However, not only have they proved irrelevant to a serious regional conflict that had no Soviet stimulus, but their military thrust has buttressed Iraq's argument to its fellow Arabs that the Carter Doctrine and the RDF were imminent threats of intervention as Saddam's pan-Arab charter defined it, and were intended against the Arab states.

Thus the war is being waged by Iraq, not only to disable the Khomeini regime from ever exercising the former Shah's role (under the Nixon Doctrine) as the Gulf policeman, but in part also to dissuade the United States from stepping in to play this role itself. One of the war's early lessons might therefore be that the United States should consider disavowing any application of the Carter Doctrine for this purpose.

Finally, the war illustrates that the single most important American (and allied) objective in the region, the security of oil supplies, probably cannot be protected by the United States, no matter how powerful the military force involved. Even a thick air defense probably cannot stop sneak air attacks, and early warning systems and other high technology do not prevent long-range artillery from wreaking its intended havoc. Oil fields are another case of the Vietnam War irony that, to take or hold them, you end up destroying them.


In sum, this has been, and remains, much more than "just another war" in the series of regional conflicts that goes back over the last 40 years. It has already left lasting scars and a much more acute sense of the vulnerability, divisions and weakness in the area. To the West, this demonstration can only heighten already intense concern over the stability of oil supplies; to the nations of the region, intensified antagonisms have now arisen that to them will appear central. It is indeed like the pre-1914 series of conflicts and confrontations in the Balkans-with the enormous difference that the Balkans were not then vital in economic terms to the major powers involved there.

Overall, it is just conceivable that the war and its aftermath will demonstrate to both superpowers that the risks of fostering alignment within the area may be greater than the benefits. This would be a very thin silver lining. The central conclusion remains that the war has been a disaster for the region, and underlines the continuing precarious dependency of the rest of the world on the Middle East and its future.

2 That conflict had sectarian overtones because the Assad regime in Damascus is predominantly Shi'ite (Alawite), while its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Iraqi leadership are predominantly Sunni. On the significance of these sectarian issues in Iraq and Syria, see my "Iraq-New Power in the Middle East, "Foreign Affairs, winter 1979/80, and Nikolaos van Dam, "Middle Eastern Political Cliches: 'Takriti' and 'Sunni rule' in Iraq: 'Alawi rule' in Syria-A Critical Appraisal," Orient Zeitschrift des Deutchen Orient-Instituts, January 1980.

3 It is difficult to assess how far Syrian support for the Tehran regime had gone. Iraqi officials have claimed that Soviet-made military equipment, supplied from Damascus or Tripoli, and Syrian and Libyan personnel were captured during the early fighting in Iran. Syria and Libya have denied these allegations.

What apparently happened was that the Syrians and Libyans agreed to provide small arms for use by the Revolutionary Guards in border areas, particularly Khuzistan, where the American-supplied regular Iranian army was undermanned. The July purge of the officer corps in Khuzistan also led the Iranians to request Syrian and Libyan advisers and instructors, who were dispatched in small numbers and not told exactly where they were going. According to the Syrians, the "gesture" was made because of a long-term hope that Iranian strength could be revived and turned eventually against Israel. The outbreak of war caught Syrian and Libyan personnel in Iran in a position from which they could not withdraw-they were not there on Syrian orders to fight Iraq.

4 A typical example of Iraqi battlefield propaganda is reported as saying: "Men of the Iranian Army are asked to raise their weapons upside down when the Iraqi Army advances. This is because you are not our objective; Khomeini's guards are our objective. We know you have been harmed by Khomeini's guards and that you have been insulted and humiliated."

5 On November 15, Tariq Aziz paid a second visit to Moscow. While this visit may have included an explanation of Iraq's military supply situation, it does not appear that anything more than small spot shortages have yet arisen or that the Soviet role has changed.

6 In November 1979, Iraq and the Soviet Union concluded a new agreement providing for Soviet assistance in oil-field development, and for a "new program that insures the availability of Soviet petroleum equipment and spare parts to the Iraqi government."

7 On the dominant influence of this line of thinking, particularly on the part of the National Security Adviser, see the series of articles on U.S. policy toward Iran in The Washington Post, October 25-30, 1980, by Scott Armstrong.

8 Gulf officials have later said off the record they did not believe there was a Saudi consensus in favor of the AWACS request. Prince Sultan, the Saudi Defense Minister, was clearly unenthusiastic about it in a statement made to the Riyadh newspaper, Al-Hazirah, on October 4. He said that "the Kingdom's security had not been threatened . . . and (we) had not requested the early-warning aircraft as a result of threats from any side. . . . We do not feel that there was any danger to our security which requires this, nor are there any threats from any quarters."

9 For the Iranians, the most immediately useful supplies include spare parts for F-4, F-5, F-14, and C-130 aircraft, air-dropped munitions (including anti-personnel cluster bombs), tank and howitzer ammunition, and some 8,600 Dragon anti-tank missiles. The Carter Administration has been very close-mouthed on the subject of where these supplies are located and whether they would be made available at once as part of a hostage agreement; there have been suggestions in the press that only "non-lethal" items might be released. On the other hand, Iraq and other Arab nations have noted the possibility that much of this matériel can be shipped out of U.S. military stocks already in Western Europe. Shipping points from U.S. military bases are plentiful, and intelligence sources have pinpointed Greece as the most likely staging area for a major resupply effort. The practical effectiveness of this weaponry depends on whether there are enough pilots and tank crews to mount fresh assaults, whether fuel for aircraft and tanks is available, and whether reinforcements for Khuzistan can be interdicted by Iraqi action.



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  • Claudia Wright is the Washington correspondent of the London New Statesman, and a frequent writer on Arab affairs, traveling often in the area. Her report, "Iraq-New Power in the Middle East," appeared in Foreign Affairs, Winter 1979/80.
  • More By Claudia Wright