The Iran-Iraq war is now in its fourth year. For those of us in the West, the conflict has had a quality of remoteness for much of its course, an impression brought about in part by the nature of the struggle itself. We feel revulsion at a war that has sent teenagers by the thousands to their deaths against entrenched gun positions, at the use of poison gas which we had hoped the conscience of mankind had abolished as a method of warfare. We have been unable to comprehend fully the ideologies and motivations driving the leaders of these two nations to pursue a conflict that has led to such carnage and cynical disregard for human life. It has been easy-indeed a relief-to put this war out of mind. And besides, we ask, what can anybody do to bring it to an end?

The policymakers of all the major powers whose interests are engaged in the Gulf-the United States, our European allies, Japan, and the Soviet Union-have felt a similar sense of frustration in dealing with the conflict. They know that while interests of great importance to them are jeopardized by the Gulf crisis, their ability to influence the course of the struggle is limited. America's leverage in particular has been circumscribed: at the outset of the war we did not have diplomatic relations with either Baghdad or Teheran and were not supplying arms to either side. Moreover, once the U.S. position in Iran had been lost as the result of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution, and once the world saw that it could absorb the loss of a major portion of Iraqi and Iranian oil without shortages or continuing price increases, the stake for the United States and its allies in the progress of the war no longer seemed as great. This was the case, at least, as long as the war appeared headed toward a military impasse, and as long as it did not spread to other countries in the Gulf. And indeed, for the first 18 months of the war, the course of the conflict seemed to stay comfortably within those parameters. Washington was content to set up a watching brief.

The evolution of the Iraq-Iran war in the past two years has, however, drawn the United States into a larger role in the conflict. The first shift in U.S. official attitudes came in the wake of Iran's impressive military victories in 1982, when it appeared that the Iraqis might collapse, leaving Iran in a commanding position of power throughout the Gulf. Washington gradually abandoned its policy of neutrality and non-involvement in favor of a "tilt" toward Iraq, although recognizing that there was little the United States could do to give practical effect to this policy shift. A more immediate threat to U.S. and Western interests occurred in 1983, when Iraq threatened to intensify its attacks on Iranian oil facilities and shipping, and Iran, in the ensuing bout of rhetoric, threatened to close the Gulf for "everybody" if the Iraqi attacks continued. In response, the United States announced it would not allow the Gulf to be closed, emphasized the capabilities of the U.S. carrier task force on station just outside the Gulf, began contingency consultations with its allies and regional friends, and stepped up diplomatic efforts to restrain escalation. When Iraqi patience with these efforts expired in early 1984, and the cycle of strikes and counter-strikes against shipping in the Gulf began, the United States acted to augment the air defenses of its Arab friends, especially Saudi Arabia, to which the United States supplied Stinger antiaircraft missiles and an additional aerial tanker to permit sustained fighter aircraft operations. America's proximity to the conflict was vividly demonstrated in June 1984 when two Iranian warplanes were shot down by Saudi interceptors using information supplied by the American-manned AWACS early warning aircraft that had been on station since the outbreak of the war.

Otherwise there has been a lull in the fighting, with accumulating evidence of sharp differences among Iran's leaders over military strategy, and some sign that Teheran may be moderating its war objectives. We are possibly entering a stage where Teheran's implacable determination to pursue the war at any cost may be evolving into a more complex policy that offers greater scope for outside efforts to encourage negotiations or at least keep the conflict under control. It is an advantageous moment to review briefly the course of the conflict, to assess the present options for each side in pursuing the war, to identify the interests of outside powers who might influence events, and to offer some judgments about how the policies of the United States and its allies can best be calibrated to achieve Western objectives.


Saddam Hussein's decision in October 1980 to launch an invasion of Iran reflected sources of tension between the two countries that are both historical and of more recent origin. Among the former were Arab-Iranian cultural antipathies, longstanding border disputes, rivalry for influence in the Persian Gulf, and a legacy of suspicion by each side that the other was seeking to undermine its authority by stirring up trouble among its ethnic and religious minorities. These tensions had been brought under control by a pact concluded between Shah Reza Pahlavi and Saddam Hussein in 1975, but they resurfaced with the collapse of the Shah's regime and the accession of Khomeini, who openly proclaimed a policy of hostility toward the Baath regime. There is no question that Baghdad was under a good deal of provocation; nevertheless, Saddam's decision to invade Iran must be ranked as one of this century's worst strategic miscalculations-a decision that could only have been based on the assumption that the invasion would help bring about Khomeini's fall, and that Iraq could use its occupation of Iranian territory to extract more favorable terms on a range of Iraqi-Iranian issues from any successor government. The assumption has proven fatefully wrong: the war provided a national cause that has rallied support behind Khomeini's Islamic regime, and postponed the day when the regime would have to moderate its policies to accommodate other internal economic and political pressures.

The initial phase of the war favored Iraq. The invasion caught Iran's political leaders by surprise, at a time when Iranian military forces were still badly disorganized and demoralized by the effects of the revolution. But Iraqi battlefield tactics were stodgy and unimaginative. Gradually the Iraqi offensive bogged down, and Iranian resistance stiffened. Capitalizing on Iran's superiority in raw manpower-its population of about 40 million is nearly three times Iraq's 14 million-Iranian commanders began to devise more effective tactics built around surprise and the use of "human wave" attacks. These proved extremely successful; Iranian forces overran Iraqi positions in a series of battlefield victories in 1982 and rapidly forced the Iraqis back to their borders.

The winter and spring of 1982 represented the low point in Iraqi fortunes. Battered militarily, Saddam now also faced a host of problems on the home front. Iraq's financial reserves were exhausted through a determination to maintain a guns-and-butter policy despite the destruction of its oil facilities in the Gulf and the further restriction of its oil exports by Syria's decision to close off the pipeline running through Syrian territory. Baghdad's Arab supporters, who had willingly extended assistance at the beginning of the war, became less open-handed as their oil incomes declined in slumping world markets. But, once again, the tide turned. Fighting now on their own territory, with their backs against the wall, Iraqi forces beat back three massive Iranian assaults in the summer of 1982, inflicting heavy Iranian casualties.

Since the failures of the 1982 Iranian attacks on Basra and the spring 1983 offensive at al-Amarna, the battlefield situation has been essentially a stalemate along lines that closely approximate the international border between the two countries. In 1983 the Iranians appeared to be switching to a strategy of smaller scale attacks at different points along the Iraqi lines, but their troop dispositions in 1984 have suggested a reversion to a strategy of trying to achieve one major victory that will bring about Saddam Hussein's ouster. Early in the year the Iranians amassed an imposing force (estimated at around 250,000 men) in the southern sector opposite Basra. Their objective would be to sever communications between Baghdad and Basra and to drive a wedge between the two Iraqi army corps defending this sector.

Some sharp but limited fighting took place in the spring, but the expected main offensive has run into major obstacles. One source of difficulty is the high water level in this marshy area, resulting partly from a heavy run-off of last winter's rains and snows, and partly from deliberate Iraqi flooding of the area. Another appears to be the increasing effectiveness of the Iraqi air force and artillery, which have been striking at Iranian assembly points, disrupting troop concentrations and logistics. Evidence is also accumulating of differences among Iranian commanders, with at least some taking the position that an all-out offensive should not be attempted until Iranian forces can be better equipped-particularly in the categories of aircraft and armor, both of which are in very short supply.

The Iranians possess a superiority in manpower, perhaps also still in fighting motivation, but the Iraqis have had time to build strong defensive positions opposite the Iranian concentrations. The Iraqis also have a decided advantage in air power, in the quantity and quality of their arms and equipment, and in being able to shift forces rapidly owing to the better network of roads behind their own lines. Even if the Iranians could achieve a breakthrough, they would have to deal with Iraqi counterattacks as well as the enormous logistical difficulties of attempting to exploit their initial advantage.


The war has been characterized on both sides by serious miscalculations about the loyalty and cohesiveness of their adversary's population, errors that flow naturally from the attitudes of cultural condescension that are endemic to the Middle East. Saddam Hussein's original assumption that the Khomeini regime would fall under the impact of Iraq's invasion has its counterpart in the conviction of Iran's leaders that as soon as the Iraqis were faced with military setbacks and economic hardship, they would rise up and throw the Saddam Hussein regime out. In fact, the war has had much the opposite effect. It has driven Iraqi public opinion behind a regime which previously had not been all that popular. The hopes of Iran's leaders that Iraq's sizable Shi'i community (more than 50 percent of the population) could be led to active disaffection have thus far also proved to be illusory. There has been no convincing evidence of any serious disturbances on the part of Iraqi Shi'i during the war, all the more remarkable because such disturbances did occur in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Conversely, Iraq's invasion route took its armies through the Iranian province of Khuzistan, also known as Arabistan because its inhabitants are largely ethnic Arabs and Arabic speakers, not Persians. Yet no defections of any significant magnitude took place among these people. Nationalism-loyalty to present states and governments-has proven a stronger force than religious affinity or distant ethnic identity.

Along with Iraq's improved military situation, the economic and political underpinnings of the strategic equation have also shifted in Baghdad's favor over the past two years. On the economic front Iraq's outlook for the short and mid-term seems stable. Through a slowdown in civil projects, the regime has brought government expenditures into better balance with revenues, an improvement that has put the Gulf Arabs in a better mood to continue their subsidies. Iraq's revenues from oil production have been limited to the 750,000-barrel daily capacity of the pipeline through Turkey (its sole remaining oil outlet since early 1982) but work is substantially complete on raising the capacity of the Turkish line to about one million barrels a day (mbd). In comparison, Iran's exports have averaged 2-2.5 mbd over the same period. Iraq also has plans to build two new pipelines. One would tie southern Iraqi fields into Saudi Arabia's presently underutilized "Petroline," running from the Gulf to the Red Sea port of Yanbu. The other is a new line to the Jordanian port of Aqaba with a planned capacity of about one million barrels a day. If pursued urgently, these two lines could possibly be completed in 18-24 months, and might eventually bring overall Iraqi exports to a level approximately equal to present Iranian exports.

The trend of international political support has also moved in Iraq's favor. Baghdad has repaired the earlier strains in its relations with Moscow and appears to be getting all the arms it needs-one must assume on favorable terms. While Iraq has broadened its international support during this period, and diversified its sources of arms, Iran has become more isolated and is finding it increasingly difficult to acquire the arms it needs. Iraq has successfully generated American and Arab pressure to squeeze off some of Iran's sources of arms. Under U.S. pressure, Israel and South Korea have terminated any direct sales of arms to Iran. Iran is still getting arms from North Korea, Libya and Syria, and of necessity it has become resourceful at acquiring what it can on the international arms market. But these sources cannot supply all Iran's needs if it is to sustain a prolonged war effort; in particular they cannot provide spare parts to keep its original arsenal of U.S. equipment operational. Iran's air force especially has suffered: only a fraction of its original fleet of F-14, F-4 and F-5 warplanes are still operational.


In spite of its better overall position, Baghdad cannot regard the possibility of a prolonged war of attrition with equanimity. If Iran could continue attacks over an extended period and inflict serious casualties, the drain on Iraq's manpower and the strain on its economy could sooner or later weaken the will of the population to continue the war. This is, however, a big "if." Iran's casualties so far have been very high; even assuming a continued high level of patriotic and religious fervor, such a casualty rate cannot go on indefinitely without political cost. Moreover, numbers are not the whole story. Iran is becoming critically short of certain categories of skilled personnel required to sustain the war effort.

Baghdad is not merely waiting for a change of heart in Teheran. It has carried the war to Iran's economic lifeline in the Gulf in a deliberate effort to increase the pressures on Teheran to end the conflict. Expanding the dimensions of the conflict into the Gulf confers significant advantages to Iraq: it provides some of the strategic depth Iraq lacks in the battlefield, draws the Gulf states into active support, and forces the Western powers also to become more involved. Iraq's crude oil exports from the Gulf are already blocked and Iraq has nothing further to lose in that respect. In contrast, Iran is totally dependent on the Gulf's shipping lanes for all its oil exports, as well as for nearly all its imports of food and war materiel. To counter Iraq, Iran would have to attack the shipping and oil facilities of the Arab Gulf countries, whose targets are dispersed and (except for Kuwait) relatively inaccessible to Iran's dwindling air force. Teheran now knows it must also contend with a well-equipped Saudi air force that has shown it is prepared to fight. Moreover, if Iran carries its retaliation beyond a certain point-certainly if it attempts to carry out its threat to "close" the Gulf-it will invite U.S. and Western military intervention. Sufficiently provoked, the United States could put Iran's navy and air force out of action, and could use its fleet at the mouth of the Gulf to impose a blockade, either selective or total, on shipping destined for Iranian ports. As far as the Gulf aspect of the war is concerned, Iran has been dealt a very poor hand and not even one that offers much prospect for bluffing.

For several weeks after Iraq's intensive series of attacks on tankers in April and May, Iranian oil exports dropped to about 500,000-600,000 barrels a day, about one quarter of Iran's normal wartime exports. The drop was artificially steep because Iran was slow to offer discounts to compensate for the sudden increase in insurance rates, and Iran's oil exports have since recovered. Still, the figures must be sobering for Teheran's leaders to ponder. If reduced to such a level of exports for any extended period, Iran would have trouble paying even for food imports. Iraq's upper hand in the Gulf must, then, be a further complication for Iran's leaders in deciding how-indeed, perhaps whether-to continue the war effort.

Not surprisingly, in view of these factors, there is growing evidence that serious differences on war strategy have emerged among Iran's political leaders. Teheran would appear to have four options in the present circumstances. Iran could take a chance on its "grand offensive" in spite of the high risks of failure, or it could keep the offensive as its objective but postpone it long enough to acquire more and better arms and equipment. Alternatively, Teheran might switch to a strategy of attrition, seeking to keep Iraq mobilized, to strain its economy, and to wear down its manpower resources and morale over time. Another option would be to explore a negotiated settlement, perhaps through one of the several mediators that periodically visit Baghdad and Teheran under a variety of auspices, such as the United Nations and the Islamic Conference. A successful negotiation would, however, require Iran to drop its insistence that Saddam Hussein be removed and "punished," which seems out of character as long as Khomeini is around to guide Iran's destiny. Perhaps most plausible might be a murky middle outcome, with Iran's leaders recognizing the inadequacy of their country's resources and allowing the war to wind down, without publicly backing off their war objectives by coming to a settlement with Baghdad. A good deal presumably depends on how long Khomeini continues to direct Iran's policy; his death or diminished political role due to advancing age would lessen the element of personal vendetta motivating this war and increase the chances for a shift to more pragmatic policies.


For the Gulf states, the Iranian revolution and the Iraq-Iran war have posed the worst security threat that they have yet had to face. Endowed with a realistic sense of their own weakness vis-à-vis more powerful regional neighbors, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula have adopted the sensible policy of seeking to stay out of trouble and remain on good terms with everybody. They worked hard and, by and large, successfully at establishing good relations with the Shah; it therefore came as a particularly unpleasant shock when his government was overthrown and replaced by a regime that openly proclaimed its hostility to the "corrupt" rulers and societies across the Gulf. Although Gulf leaders will now say privately that they had misgivings about Saddam's invasion from the start, most of them backed Iraq at the time and many undoubtedly shared Saddam's misjudgments about the fragility of the Khomeini regime. While not entirely of one mind on the matter, the Gulf states generally see Iraq as their first line of defense against Iranian subversion and, consequently, are committed to sustaining Iraq in the war. They cannot be happy about the expansion of the war to Gulf shipping, but they do not have a convincing counter to Baghdad's argument that it has provided plenty of openings for Iran to negotiate, and indeed that it is presently handling escalation in the Gulf in a way that gives Iran every opportunity to end the war. There is little evidence to suggest that Iraq's Gulf backers are trying to pressure Baghdad to halt its attacks on shipping to and from Iranian ports.

Even so, the leaders of the Arab Gulf regimes are sufficiently seasoned to take a longer political view as well. Their long-term interest is to ensure that neither Iran or Iraq achieves a clear-cut victory, but rather that the conflict is resolved in a way that leaves neither power in a position to dominate the Gulf. They know that even in the best of circumstances Iraq cannot "defeat" Iran, and that whatever course Iran's internal revolution takes over the next decade, Iran will continue to be a paramount force in Gulf affairs, and that the Arab Gulf states will have to find a way of living with it. They have therefore sought to balance their support for Iraq by keeping the door open to Teheran, with the United Arab Emirates most often taking the lead in this effort. The message being delivered-that the Gulf states have nothing against the Islamic Republic if it would only stop trying to subjugate Iraq-has probably been rather coolly received in view of the Gulf states' enthusiastic backing for Saddam when he launched the war. But, with persistence, the message may eventually be taken seriously, to beneficial effect.

In the meantime, from the Gulf states' perspective, the episode in early June when two Iranian aircraft hunting for ship targets were shot down by Saudi interceptors must be seen as a healthy development. All the fancy equipment in the world (and the Saudis certainly have plenty of it) cannot make a fighting force until men and machines are tested in a real combat situation. The episode has had the effect of giving Saudi Arabia confidence in its ability to defend itself, and it has also shown that the defense system worked out between themselves and the United States is indeed operationally effective. The Saudis handled the incident intelligently from a political point of view as well: they were careful not to gloat and their public statements made it clear they were not seeking further clashes with Iran.


If the Iran-Iraq conflict has posted difficult choices for the West, the external evidence suggests that Moscow has faced an equal dilemma. The Soviets were slow to react to the Iranian revolution; they had painstakingly built a relationship with the Shah, and they were initially uncertain both about the durability of the revolution and the course its leaders would take. But recognizing finally that the new regime was taking a firmly anti-American direction, and hoping also that they might preserve a position in Iran for the day when the ayatollahs might falter, the Soviets decided to make a play for good relations.

But Khomeini reacted perversely to Soviet overtures. He moved ruthlessly against Iran's leftist parties which, during the interregnum, had become more active and visible; and, after a brief modus vivendi, he arrested and jailed the leadership of Iran's Tudeh (Communist) Party. Also, Iran voiced its strong opposition to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, even to the point of permitting shipment of supplies to anti-Soviet forces. Confronted by these adverse developments, the Soviets picked up their second option and switched back to their original tilt in favor of Iraq.

Like the Western powers, the Soviets have a complex of interests that are affected by the Gulf crisis. Among them are: preventing any reestablishment of a dominant U.S. position in Iran (not very likely in the foreseeable circumstances in any case), neutralizing Iran as an "Islamic model" that might have appeal to the U.S.S.R.'s Muslim populations, consolidating the Soviet position in Afghanistan, and building favor with the Arab world and particularly with the Gulf states by playing the role of Iraq's defender. The Soviets recognize, of course, that these objectives are to a certain extent contradictory, but for the present and near future at least, the conflicts between them seem manageable. More broadly, we can assume that the Soviets will continue to look for ways to exploit the Gulf crisis to further their longstanding objective of depriving the United States of its privileged position in the area-particularly military positions-and of loosening the ties that bind the Gulf states in one form or another to the West. But they must move cautiously in pursuit of this objective. A miscalculation could have the opposite effect of consolidating U.S. positions in the Gulf. Indeed, Soviet statements in the past year have revealed particular concern over the possibility that, under pressure from an escalating conflict, the peninsula states might agree to new U.S. military bases on their territory.

The Soviets certainly have no interest in seeing an Iranian victory over Iraq. They probably have a net interest in seeing the war resolved, or at least wind down, in circumstances that do not make either side a clear winner or clear loser. This would suggest some convergence of Soviet and Gulf states' and Western interests, but it is doubtful that this can be made to extend to active U.S.-Soviet collaboration to see the war brought to an end. The Soviets are too much at odds with the United States throughout the Middle East to wish to appear to be acting in concert with it anywhere in the region. Moreover, the atmosphere between the Reagan Administration and the present Soviet leadership is not one to encourage even a dialogue about such a venture. It is, however, at least an asset that the Soviets are not working at cross purposes with Western efforts to keep the Gulf war under control.

Looking at their overall situation in the Middle East, the Soviets have little reason to be displeased at the way things have gone for them in recent years. The Gulf crisis has served to divert world attention from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; with every passing year, the Soviets have consolidated their hold and the chances have improved that the West, as well as the Islamic states of the Middle East, will come to accept the Soviet role there as a fait accompli. In Lebanon the Soviets backed the winning horse and gained prestige while U.S. credibility suffered a severe blow. In both situations the Soviets come across as the power that has the determination and tenacity to stick by its friends and surrogates when the going gets tough. If the Soviets are now in a position to make the case as well that it was their support, their arms and military training that enabled the Iraqis to hold off the Iranians, it will give them a good foundation to resume their campaign, interrupted by strains over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan five years ago, to woo the Gulf Arabs into closer ties with Moscow.


Oil is not the only Western interest in the Gulf, but among our various interests it is the most important. It is a stroke of luck for the West that the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war have taken place during a period when the world has a large surplus of crude oil capacity. World demand today is still nearly ten million barrels a day less than it was at its peak in 1979. With economic recovery in the United States, demand for oil is gradually rising, but thus far at a rate that can easily be supplied by bringing a portion of existing unused capacity into production.1 Moreover, over the past decade, there has been a relative decline in the share of world oil supply that the Gulf provides. In 1973 Western Europe received about 60 percent of its oil from the Gulf, and Japan 90 percent; today those figures are about 40 percent and 60 percent respectively (only about three percent of total U.S. consumption comes from the Gulf).

The U.S. government's current estimate, which has not been seriously disputed, is that shipments from the Gulf could drop by as much as one half their present level (eight to nine mbd) without causing shortages or a real basis for price increases. The shortfall could be made up by filling the Saudi "Petroline" (an extra 500-700,000 bd) and by bringing on-stream unused capacity outside the Gulf (an estimated three mbd). It is worth noting that monthly statistics of production from the Gulf thus far show hardly any fluctuation due to the war. During the period of intensified attacks in the spring of 1984, insurance rates went up slightly for the Gulf as a whole and more sharply for cargoes to ports in the northern Gulf, but even the countries most affected-Iran and to a lesser extent Kuwait-kept their oil marketable by offering discounts to compensate for the increased insurance costs. Attacks on shipping, and/or the oil facilities themselves, would have to become far more intense and far more effective to cause a significant drop in overall Gulf shipments.

The critical factor for "closure of the Gulf," of course, will probably not be physical blockage of the Strait of Hormuz or actual destruction of vessels but rather the point at which crews, in spite of high incentive pay, refuse to sign on for voyages in the Gulf. This might occur well before a 50-percent destruction rate is reached, but it certainly is well beyond the present level of fighting. While some tanker companies have said they will no longer send their own vessels and crews into the Gulf, they were able without difficulty to charter independent tankers to replace them. Even at the peak level of fighting in the spring of 1984, there was no dearth of tankers and crews willing to take their vessels into the war zone, provided the price was right.

Efforts by Iran to use guerrillas to damage oil facilities in the Arab countries are possible, and perhaps even likely given the weakness of Iran's air force. Sabotage teams could be landed from speedboats at night, and given the length of the shoreline the Gulf states have to protect, it would be very hard to defend against this. Undoubtedly some damage could be inflicted on individual facilities (desalination plants would also be an inviting target) if a campaign along these lines were pushed with determination. This could cause temporary difficulties for specific countries (Kuwait is the most vulnerable target), but Iran would find it much harder to put a substantial portion of overall Gulf production out of commission for any sustained period.

Beyond these factors, governments of consumer countries have actions available to head off shortages and price increases resulting from panic buying. Government-held stocks-such as the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve-can be brought into play. The Reagan Administration initially took a cautious view of use of the SPR but more recently has said it would be used "early" in any crisis, a helpful shift of policy. This could place as much as an additional two mbd on the market for a period of several months, a significant amount in terms of any likely Gulf shortages. In any impending crisis, one of the most important actions consumer-country governments can take is to intervene to prevent stockpiling by their oil companies; in such circumstances companies tend to build stocks to protect themselves against anticipated price increases, and this in turn adds to the upward pressure on prices. There is now substantial agreement among the governments of the industrial consuming countries to ward off such behavior.

Taken together, the various factors making up the oil situation, while certainly no basis for complacency, do indicate a considerable margin of safety. There is no basis for panic; the United States and its allies can afford to take deliberate, graduated action to meet a crisis as it develops. And, much to the relief of our allies, under most scenarios that can be projected there will be time for consultation and an exhaustion of diplomatic efforts before military action becomes necessary as a last resort.


The United States has three major policy objectives with respect to the present crisis in the Gulf. First and foremost, we need to prevent any disruption of Gulf oil shipments that is sufficient to cause severe hardship or dislocation to the Western economies. Second, we seek to ensure the security of the oil-producing governments in the area that have been friendly to the West-governments that have resisted the expansion of Soviet influence in the area, have followed reasonably responsible oil production and pricing policies, and that favor open and tolerant societies. Third, we would like to see an outcome of the Iraq-Iran struggle that does not give the Soviet Union a dominant position in either country, and that provides an opportunity for the United States and its allies to build relations with both countries. Since there is little likelihood that Iraq will defeat Iran, what we are really talking about is a policy that seeks to prevent the Khomeini regime from winning a victory that could undermine the position of pro-Western Gulf governments, give impetus to extremist Islamic movements throughout the Middle East, and create new opportunities for an expansion of Soviet influence in the region.

Stated in such broad terms, these are policy objectives which the United States, its allies, and even its friends in the area, can easily endorse. The differences among us hinge rather on the manner in which these objectives can be best pursued-in particular, over what blend of political action and military force is best suited to produce the desired results. The other part of the problem of policy coordination for the United States is a reluctance on the part of the Europeans, Japanese, and Gulf friends to become too closely identified with the United States. All of these "partners" are faced with a dilemma: they recognize that the American military capacity to prevent closure of the Gulf-and American arms to enable the Gulf states to defend themselves-are indispensable, yet they also feel that any direct intervention by the United States tends to heighten confrontation by introducing the element of U.S.-Soviet rivalry, and by enabling regional actors to capture nationalist sentiment by striking a posture of heroic resistance to the "imperialist superpower."

America's policy on the Arab-Israel issue is a further problem: neither the Europeans nor the Japanese want to have the pursuit of their own commercial interests complicated by identification with U.S. policies on this aspect of Middle East affairs. They recognize that while the Gulf states cannot easily dispense with the United States because of its security assistance, the same advantage does not necessarily extend to them. The Gulf states themselves find this combination of U.S. "liabilities" to be a compelling reason to downplay U.S. security assistance and to treat any call for direct U.S. military intervention as a contingency of last resort. The U.S. performance in Lebanon was also troubling to Gulf leaders; they are worried that they may be saddled by the political disadvantages of an American military involvement only to find Washington pulling out when the going gets tough.

The need to interact with the interests of our allies and our regional friends has helped to bring about modifications in U.S. policy which have been an asset to the overall posture of the West in the Gulf. The reluctance of the Gulf states to engage in contingency planning for the use of U.S. forces has been frustrating for U.S. military planners, but it has had the advantage of placing the Gulf states themselves in the first line of defense for their own security, which is where they want and ought to be. One of the few beneficial by-products of the Iran-Iraq conflict is the impetus it has given to cooperation among the Gulf states within the framework of their six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain), formed in 1981 in response to the war. This is not yet an effective defense alliance, but it has added marginally to the security of its individual members by expressing political solidarity, facilitating intelligence exchanges, and providing for joint military exercises.

Washington's dialogue with its European allies has also been helpful. Compared with some U.S. officials, the Europeans have tended to take a less alarmist view of the likelihood of sudden escalation and believe that most situations will offer considerable scope for political action. In return for their willingness to join the United States in military planning and to make defense of the Gulf an allied effort (such as French and British willingness to help American forces sweep the Red Sea for mines, in response to an Egyptian call for help) the Europeans have sensibly refused to commit themselves ahead of time about the circumstances that would require military action. They have insisted that in any escalating situation time be allowed for the exhaustion of all diplomatic options before resorting to military force.

All of this has helped to build greater flexibility and a greater margin of safety into the Western posture in the Gulf. The dialogue-or more accurately trialogue-that has ensued around these points has on the whole been constructive and has moved the three parties closer to consensus on the complementary role each would play in an overall effort. The Gulf states themselves have assumed responsibility in the first instance for the security of their territory and shipping lanes; the U.S. role is to help the Gulf states with military assistance and to stand by with its own force as the ultimate sanction against attempts to close the Gulf; and the Europeans can play a useful role by stressing the non-confrontational nature of Western policy, pursuing diplomatic solutions as different phases of a crisis develop, and perhaps, in quieter times, by trying to open a dialogue with Teheran. There is something of an inconsistency in a U.S. policy which states, on one hand, that keeping the Gulf open is a "vital" U.S. interest and, on the other, that the United States would only intervene if invited to do so by the Gulf states themselves. But sometimes absolute consistency is less important than finding a way to express fully the many considerations that U.S. policy must reflect. American public statements to date have served the purpose of expressing both the depth of U.S. interest in the Gulf and the restraint that we hope can characterize U.S. actions.

Perhaps the most difficult dilemma for Western policymakers would arise if the military situation turned against Iraq, and Teheran were able to bring about the replacement of Saddam with a regime subservient to Iranian interests. Such a development would raise the clear danger of broader Iranian efforts to unseat the region's moderate governments. If those efforts took the form of an actual physical attack, particularly against our most important regional ally, Saudi Arabia, Washington would have to be prepared to intervene with air and naval forces, and in such an event there seems little doubt that there would be a call for assistance from the Saudi government and that Saudi facilities would be made available for U.S. use. But even if Iran did not directly attempt to destroy the other Arab Gulf regimes, its enhanced power and influence would certainly be used over time to force accommodations from them, which would be harmful to long-term Western interests. This could well be the most likely scenario to emerge; it would also unfortunately be the one that the United States, with its emphasis on military dispositions, would be least well-equipped to counter.

In almost any scenario, it seems sensible to use as much restraint as possible for as long as we can, so as to give the political leadership in Teheran every opportunity to draw back from trying to pursue the war. We need to erect an effective defense in the Gulf, but it is also important for the United States not to appear to be seeking a confrontation with "Islam," for such an image will serve to build pressures against us and against regimes that are friendly to us elsewhere in the Islamic world.

In this respect we have a reasonably respectable record to build on. In spite of the legacy of bad feeling left by the Iranian revolution and the hostages, and in spite of the necessary thrust of our present policy, we have not supplied Iraq with arms, and we were forthright in our condemnation of Iraq's use of poison gas. We have seen enough of history to know that Iran's present policies are not likely to be immutable, and there is little reason to suppose that its political leadership is monolithically agreed on pursuit of the conflict, or on a holy war to convert the Muslim world to their brand of Islam regardless of the costs to Iranian society. Even if there were not much evidence to support it, we would have to assume that a struggle is under way in Teheran between those who want to "export the revolution" and those who see an increasing need to "consolidate it at home." It is the task of Western policy to strengthen the hand of the latter by demonstrating that the costs of pursuing an imperial policy are too high, but that at the same time we have no quarrel with an Islamic Republic confined within Iran's borders.

Finally, we need to keep in mind that an effective policy to deal with the Gulf crisis cannot be built in isolation from the context of our overall Middle East policy. Muslim sensitivities are affected by U.S. policy on the Arab-Israeli problem, and they are particularly acute on the subject of Jerusalem. Opinionmakers in the area hear with dismay sentiments from Americans, including Congressmen, that go far beyond officially stated U.S. support for Israeli security and the search for an Arab-Israeli settlement. It would be pointless for the United States to waste time and energy fine-tuning a policy for the Gulf that takes those Muslim sensitivities into account in the Gulf region itself, and ignores them elsewhere.


1 The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development currently estimates that consumption in 1984 will be one to two percent greater than in 1983.

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  • Michael Sterner is a partner in The IRC Group, a Washington-based international consulting firm. He was Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates 1974-76, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with responsibility for Arab-Israeli affairs 1977-81.
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