Iran and Iraq resemble two exhausted boxers after a dozen rounds of high-stakes pugilism. The two have different fighting styles. Iran is more aggressive, Iraq wilier. Iran is more acutely motivated, Iraq better trained. Iran has no devoted handlers in its corner, whereas Iraq has an entourage of supporters. Neither combatant seems able to summon strength beyond that needed for one more good round, but each insists it will fight on until the other gives in. For the two of them, it is a grudge match. Both are apparently as stubborn as they claim.

Yet, devastating though it is in terms of lives and money, no one has much of a sense of when the fighting is likely to end, nor does anyone feel very confident about predicting the winner. After six years the prospect of endless war has created deep anxieties throughout the oil-rich Persian Gulf and sent intimations of calamity reverberating over a steadily widening area. Washington, with its vital Middle East interests, admits it is also worried. But sending confusing signals about arms supplies to the area, it appears to have no clear vision, much less a policy, for bringing the war to an end.


By conventional strategic assessment, Iran should win this war. With 42 million inhabitants, its population is three times the size of Iraq’s. With a fervor born of a successful revolution, it has brought to the battlefield far more élan. But Iraq has defied the gloomy prophesies of outside experts and continued to fight with surprising obstinacy. To make up for its deficiencies in manpower, it has mobilized more effectively. Accurate figures in this war are hard to come by, but according to American estimates Iraq may have as many as 750,000 men permanently under arms, about 200,000 more than Iran. Furthermore, thanks to various friendly nations in the region and farther afield, Iraq has kept its men much better equipped.

Only a few years ago, Iran and Iraq were great oil powers, working to build modern industrial economies. Now both are virtually bankrupt. Iraq may be burdened by as much as $50 billion in foreign debt, Iran by only slightly less. Iraq has difficulties paying foreign creditors and has cut back substantially on imports, not only of consumer products but of raw materials needed for its non-defense industries.

The difference between the economic circumstances facing the two countries, however, is that the Arab oil powers in the Persian Gulf will not let Iraq be defeated for lack of funds. They see Iran’s revolutionary crusade as a menace to themselves as well as to the societies they govern. Convinced that Iraq’s cause is their own, they have advanced $30 billion or more in credits and will no doubt come forth with more as needed. In contrast, Iran, isolated by its doctrines not just from the West but from Moscow, must juggle its finances from day to day. To feed its people and its military machine, it is reduced to paying for almost all its imports in cash.

Militarily, what this means is that Iraq has the luxury of selecting from the best products of many weapons suppliers, most notably the Soviet Union and France. Iran, meanwhile, keeps its army going with second-rate weapons, most of them from China and North Korea, some from the Eastern bloc. In the past five years Iraq has built not only the largest but the best-equipped army in the Arab world. Although Western observers say that Iraq has not satisfactorily integrated its weaponry into battlefield operations, its effectiveness is growing. Most dramatically, Iraq has an edge in aircraft that may be as high as 20 to 1, though it has yet to capitalize on the battlefield superiority such a ratio would seem to promise.

Realistically, however, Iraq does not expect to win the war against Iran on the battlefield. Given the size and determination of its foe, it probably cannot. Insofar as it has a long-term view, Iraq’s strategy is to maintain military pressure in the hope of exhausting Iran economically. It is no coincidence that when the Gulf powers opened their oil taps in late 1985, creating a glut that swept the floor from under world prices, Iran complained the loudest. Under pressure from other OPEC members, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait finally consented in August 1986 to a program of reduced production quotas, but only after forcing Teheran to exempt Iraq from any limits. At about the same time the Iraqi air force began to show some daring, bombing Iranian oil installations throughout the Gulf. The most recent assessment indicates that Iranian oil shipments are down significantly. The bombing campaign was a clear acknowledgment by Iraq that only by conducting successful economic warfare is it likely to get out of the struggle intact.

Yet, despite its military and economic limitations, Iran’s strategy has on the whole been to maintain the offensive, while Iraq has for the most part remained on the defensive. By concentrating its forces at selected points along the 730-mile frontier, Iran has shown that it can exploit local superiority in manpower to launch attacks that force the Iraqis into retreat and, occasionally, that breach Iraqi lines. But, lacking both mobility and firepower, Iran has been unable to build the momentum to capture cities or destroy armies. The cost of these operations has been an estimated 300,000 Iranian dead, more than double the Iraqi figure. Strategically, this is a level of loss Iran can take, thanks to its edge in population and morale, and still come back for more. But the strategy has not brought victory notably closer.

Iraq’s lack of aggressiveness on the battlefield has puzzled Western experts, who have attributed it to military incompetence or, at the very least, to poor coordination between the civilian and military leadership. Indeed, even the Iraqis acknowledge that, when its forces invaded Iran in 1980, the Baghdad government failed to communicate clear objectives to its commanders in the field, a failure reflected in the tentativeness of the early advance. The Iran-Iraq border, after all, is one across which Arabs and Persians have feuded throughout much of recorded history. Iraq saw the war in some ways as the latest round in an established routine. Its forces encountered only scattered opposition at first, then retreated to the international border when Iran counterattacked. But even without a plan to vanquish the enemy, the Iraqi government resents any statement that its units suffer from poor leadership and low morale. It defends the army by asking rhetorically how, if its troops are poorly led and demoralized, Iraq has managed through more than five years to beat back all but one of Iran’s frenetic attacks.

Iran’s single successful offensive occurred in February 1986, when its forces surprised the defenders of the port city of Fao by forcing their way in small boats across the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway that divides the countries at the top of the Persian Gulf. Iran’s first major territorial capture, Fao was a psychological defeat for Iraq. But at the time it fell, Fao had little military significance. It had been abandoned as a port early in the war and was virtually unpopulated. More significant, Iraqis say, is that after giving up Fao, the Iraqi army regrouped and stopped the Iranians in their tracks, denying them the more important objective of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, about 50 miles upriver. Since then Iraq has kept Fao under siege, bottling up some 30,000 Iranians. The cost to Iraq has been correspondingly greater, however. By staying in Fao, Iran has immobilized some 50,000 Iraqi besiegers, who cannot be deployed to defend against attacks elsewhere.

Western military experts have argued that Iraq, to redress national morale and restore the maneuverability of its forces, must retake Fao. Clearly, some Iraqi generals also want to be more aggressive, but the government has stood firm against taking the offensive. In a society that is secretive by nature, it is difficult to engage officials in on-the-record discussions of strategy. But privately, Iraqi leaders explain that Iraq, at a serious disadvantage in reserves, cannot wage a war that entails inordinate bloodletting. Indeed, the country’s Achilles’ heel lies in the attrition of its manpower. Iraqis point out that Iran’s willingness to trade lives on a one-for-one basis is a bad bargain for them.

When I visited the Fao front in mid-1986, I found the generals more confident, the field-grade officers more vigilant, the soldiers more alert than I had anticipated. My irritation at not starting the tour until eleven o’clock in the morning was tempered by an explanation that the officers routinely remain awake throughout the night to guard against surprise attack. The men saluted smartly as our staff jeep passed through their positions. Sentries holding binoculars watched enemy positions across the Shatt al-Arab from within concrete bunkers or walls of sandbags. The bivouacs were clean and food appeared to be ample. It was clear from the artillery fire which punctuated our discussions that the Iranians holding the Fao salient were allowed little rest.

Asked whether Iraq had plans to take the offensive, the general in command was unambiguous. He said he would not send Iraqi infantry against Iran’s fixed defensive positions, even if the invaders remained in Fao for years. Indeed, though the days that preceded my visit had been quiet at the front, the visible signs of Iraqi losses were plentiful. The army sends its dead home in flag-draped coffins attached to the roofs of taxis, and I passed dozens on the road as my car moved southward from Baghdad. Iraqis acknowledge that Western experts call their strategy timid, but they insist that conserving lives makes good sense to them.

The strategy seems also designed to serve Iraq’s political concept of the war. From the start, the government spoke of "measured" war aims. It knows very well that nothing it does will change the fact that Iran is the major power of the Gulf region. Inflicting a humiliation would only mean that, in a decade or so, Iran would come back for revenge. The weakness of Iraq’s initial thrust seems to confirm that what it had in mind was, at most, a modest border war. The Iraqi government has never wavered from its claim that it is fighting not to conquer Iran but to defend its territory and its revolution.

Indeed, this is a war which cannot be understood as an ordinary clash of nations. Iraq, irritated at the Iranian meddling within its borders that began when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power, resolved to take a firm stand. It miscalculated by not grasping that its differences with the new regime could not be settled by a frugal exchange of blood on the battlefield followed by conventional negotiations. To Baghdad’s surprise, Iran spurned the rules of limited war once the fight started, demanding Iraq’s total and unequivocal surrender. Indeed, Iran insisted on turning the war into a showdown within the Islamic world between conflicting concepts of man, between one Weltanschauung and another, between incompatible revolutionary visions. After so many years of fighting, therefore, a negotiated settlement appears increasingly unlikely.


Much has been written about the Iranian revolution since Khomeini took power in 1979. An expression of Islamic fundamentalism, it promises its followers little during life, much after death. It is intolerant not only of faiths other than Islam but of forms of Islam less rigorous than its own. Placing the service of God at the center of its universe, it vigorously rejects the man-centered model that both the West and communism have imparted to the contemporary era. Hostile to what is new, it venerates the ways of the Islamic past, most conspicuously the secondary role assigned to women. It rejects Arab nationalism, particularly the concept of a single nation of Arabs, as well as the local nationalisms of contemporary Arab states, as a diversion from the goal of Islamic supremacy. It is fanatically self-righteous, admitting the validity of no idea or practice that is not sanctioned either by the ayatollah or by the mullahs who surround him.

In contrast, the Baath revolution in Iraq is not familiar to many in the West. Unlike the Iranian revolution, it did not proceed from a dramatic popular uprising. The Baath’s victory in 1968, five years after a failure to consolidate its first seizure of power, seemed barely distinguishable from the military coups that had attached to Arab politics the metaphor of the revolving door. Indeed, little seemed to separate Saddam Hussein, sparkplug of the Baath Party and later president, from the ruthless Iraqi generals who had ruled before him. At the time the Baath took control, few outside observers noted that it was a civilian party, with no tanks of its own. More important, unlike earlier military regimes it had a social vision.

The Baath revolution emerged from the thinking of a handful of intellectuals in Damascus and Beirut who in the late 1940s and early 1950s transmitted their doctrine to cells of activists around the Arab world. In Iraq, the Baath Party, organizing in secret, made key converts in the army, and through them seized power bloodlessly. The work of a tiny cadre, its revolution resembled the Bolshevik more than the popular Khomeini revolution. Saddam Hussein, a professional revolutionary, was its Lenin, grasping the machinery of the state by conspiracy, imposing the ideology of the party as the nation’s constitution. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude from the absence of mobs in the street that the party’s dogma was simply a cover for the crude acquisition of power. Though Baathism was never a mass movement, in ideological terms it represented no less than did Bolshevism revolution in a fundamental sense.

Baathism is Iraq’s answer to a search in which all Arab society has been engaged since the fall of the Ottoman Empire early in the twentieth century. It is a search for political forms and intellectual direction that are responsive to the modern world but that do not offend religious and cultural traditions. Egypt’s answer after Nasser has been authoritarian democracy, Jordan’s an enlightened monarchy. Saudi Arabia’s is tribal hegemony within a framework of religious austerity, Kuwait’s a guided parliamentarism with a dose of personal freedom. Lebanon has found no answer at all. Syria, like Iraq, proclaims an allegiance to Baathism, and the two countries, long-standing enemies, argue endlessly over which one practices the purer form. Whoever is right, both are committed to a radical secularization of Arab society. Iraq has proven itself the more serious about the transformation, if only because its commitment has been intensified during six years of war with Iran.

Baathism challenges orthodox Islam by promoting a doctrine that exalts the nation over the mosque, separating for all practical purposes the state from religion. Proclaiming an attachment to Islamic roots and a debt to Islamic tradition, it places no barriers in the way of worship, but neither does it grant a special role to the Islamic clergy or to the Shari‘a, the Islamic law. Like Zionism, Baathism speaks of creating a "new" society, freed of the shackles of an oppressive past. It supports education and technology, the emancipation of women, economic development and material prosperity. It renders homage to the concept of Arab unity, but its real focus is on the political and social flowering of Iraq, the nation. The notion of Islamic unity, deeply rooted in Arab history, it considers a relic of the past.

Baathism thus departs from orthodox Islam, but does not abandon it, to address the problem of creating a nation out of a deeply divided people. Iraq, despite its brilliant role in Arab history, had ceased to exist under the Turks and, since independence in the 1940s, successive governments faced the dilemma of how to restore a sense of nationhood. Significantly, Baathism’s chief ideologue, Michel Aflaq, was not a Muslim at all but a Christian Arab, raised in Syria and educated in Paris on pan-Arab doctrines. A venerated figure, he currently lives in Baghdad and serves, at least honorifically, as secretary-general of the Baath Party. Aflaq’s formula for dealing with the Arab world’s debilitating divisions was to create a powerful nationalism, built not upon religious conformity but on a genuine tolerance of cultural diversity.

It can be argued that the doctrine was made to order for heterogeneous Iraq. Though Muslims of the orthodox Sunni wing of Islam are politically dominant in the country, the majority of the population is Shia, from the ancient rival sect to which 90 percent of Iran also belongs. Located mostly in the south, the Shi‘ites have historically been alienated from the Sunni Muslims of Baghdad. Equally divisive, a quarter of the population are Kurds, a separate ethnic and linguistic people from the Arabs, though Sunni in their religious practice. Concentrated in the north, where most of Iraq’s oil and gas are located, the Kurds have been perpetually rebellious. What Baathism has offered the Kurds is a certain amount of political autonomy, just as it has offered the Shi‘ites the practice of their religious rites without state interference. The price Iraqis pay to the Baath for this religious and cultural tolerance, however, is a rigorous and sometimes brutal suppression of political dissent.

To experience Baathism as a culture, it is necessary to see Baghdad. Look beyond the panels that everywhere display the likeness of Saddam Hussein, bemedaled in uniform or embracing his children, in bedouin headdress or in elegantly tailored Italian suits, atop a stallion or, least convincingly, on his knees in prayer. It is the women who are the index of Baathism. They make their presence felt in the daytime in shops and offices and, in the evening, many come out to stroll. Most wear Western clothes. They walk with men, sometimes hand in hand, along the avenues. They picnic with their families in the parks and dine with them in the fish restaurants on the banks of the Tigris. Some dance with male companions in the cabarets of the major hotels. Their presence gives the city, despite the scarcities and tensions of wartime, a more debonair quality than that of any other Arab capital.

In contrast, the provinces seem immune to Baath teaching. There, the women cover themselves from head to toe in black robes, and many still hide their faces with veils. Even the men wear traditional dress. The ways of Baghdad, the model of the "new" society, have not spread widely to the provincial cities, and even less to the impoverished countryside. If the hinterland is backward as a Westerner sees it, to Khomeini that is its strength. By the standards of Iran’s revolution, Baathism has made of Baghdad not a model for the future but a den in which the virtues of Islam have given way to modernist corruption.


Khomeini had a personal exposure to the Baath’s "corruption" during 14 years of his life. In 1965, having been expelled from Iran as a troublemaker, he went to live in An Najaf in southern Iraq. An Najaf is one of the holy cities of Shia Islam, Khomeini’s sect. With nearby Karbala, it is an object of pilgrimage for Shia Muslims, nearly as important as Mecca itself. During Khomeini’s years there, large communities of Iranian Shi‘ites lived in both cities, and he was a familiar figure in their great mosques. He surrounded himself with political followers in An Najaf and, with little interference from the Baath regime, engaged in agitation against the shah’s regime in Iran.

In 1975 the Baath attitude toward the shah, long hostile, took a positive turn when the two countries negotiated a treaty resolving a range of political and territorial disputes. Three years later, with revolutionary tremors rising in Iran, the shah asked Baghdad to put an end to Khomeini’s political activities and Saddam Hussein agreed. First Iraq placed political limitations on Khomeini, then put him under house arrest and finally ordered him out of the country. With his entourage Khomeini headed by car to Kuwait, only to be turned back at the border. By the time he was taken in by France, any gratitude he may once have felt for Iraqi hospitality had given way to vindictiveness.

In his home outside Paris, shortly before his triumphant return to Iran, Khomeini disclosed to a journalist the names on his personal enemies list. First, he said, came the shah. Next, for the support it had given the shah, came the "American Satan." In third place was "Saddam Hussein and his infidel Baath Party." Though Zionism was Islam’s ultimate foe, Khomeini said, he would take aim first at the targets that stood ahead of it.

Khomeini overthrew the shah in January 1979. In November, he humiliated the American Satan by seizing its embassy in Teheran and holding its personnel hostage, ultimately inflicting a fatal political wound on Jimmy Carter, its leader in the White House. After exacting his vengeance on the first two foes on his list, he was ready to turn his attention to the third.

By mid-1979, Khomeini had already rebuffed a series of friendly Iraqi overtures and begun his campaign. Teheran radio barraged Iraq with condemnations of his expulsion the year before. The government organized mass demonstrations demanding Saddam Hussein’s death and the establishment in Iraq of an Islamic republic. In November 1979 Iran charged that Iraq was secretly aiding Zionism, a crime of which it had accused the shah, and Iranian officials threatened a march on Baghdad. Before the year was up, armed bands of Iranians had attacked Iraqi consulates and, reenacting the seizure of the American embassy, taken one of them over.

In early 1980 it became clear that Teheran was financing anti-Baath terrorists among Iraq’s Shi‘ites. The Baath retaliated by expelling dozens of suspect Iranians, some of whom had spent their lives in Iraq. In great frustration, it put Iraq’s leading Shia leader on trial for subversion and executed him. Iran’s answer to the execution was to declare a three-day period of national mourning, during which it called on the Iraqi army to desert the Baath and bring down the regime.

Iraq does not deny that it struck the first blow in the war. In September 1980, Baghdad demanded that Iranian troops observe the terms of its 1975 treaty with the shah by withdrawing from a number of border areas. When Iran refused, claiming the new regime was not bound by the shah’s word, Iraq abrogated the treaty. On September 22 Iraqi infantry columns crossed the frontier into Iran, while Iraqi bombers struck at Iranian military installations. The rapid Iraqi advance left little doubt as to which of the two sides had been preparing for the war. Nonetheless, the Iraqis claim with some plausibility that their move was a preemptive strike, aimed at denying advantage to a foe that had made clear its resolve to overthrow Iraq’s government, whether by invasion or subversion.

Once the contest advanced beyond initial sparring, it became clear that Iraq was outmatched, at least in some ways. In a long war Iraq’s inferiority in population was a significant handicap. The proximity of its major cities to the frontier made them easier targets than were Iran’s. But more important than demography or geography was the mismatch in revolutionary ideologies. Baathism, unlike Khomeinism, offers the hope of improvements in the people’s standard of living. To justify itself, it has to deliver material benefits that are measurable to its beneficiaries. The loss of comfort, riches or life is an erosion of its promise. Baathism, a revolution of this world, had no provision for a long, destructive war.

In contrast, Khomeini’s revolution was otherworldly. Its realization is subjective. Abnegation is a reward, death a fulfillment. Since only in some universe beyond can its followers experience the bliss that it offers them, none will ever testify to the truth of its doctrine. While the Baath has to maintain decent living standards and conserve lives, Khomeini has only to persuade his people to believe. His persuasiveness has been manifest in the enthusiasm of his soldiers. It is a military asset that has surpassed in value any weapon that Iraq has been able to put on the battlefield. It has left Iran free to sacrifice both lives and property with abandon.

The different character of these two revolutions gives them different views of the war. For the Baath the war is a waste. It can be justified only as a defense against an enemy with whom, for thousands of years, Arabs have regularly been in confrontation. On this basis Saddam Hussein rouses his people, invoking Qadisiya, a celebrated battle in A.D. 637 in which the Arabs drove the Persians out of Iraq. He uses the war to forge among Iraqi society’s disparate groups a new sense of nationhood, and it is hard to imagine any peacetime policy that would have served as well. Still, even in accepting as inevitable that another round of fighting with the Persians will one day come along, revolutionary Iraq would like to get back to the practical work of nation-building.

That is not to say that Baath nationalism does not contain an expansionist germ. Not only does Baath ideology glorify Arab unity, but within every Iraqi resides the dream of restoring Baghdad’s ancient leadership of an Arab empire. Still, in practice, the Baath regime has shown little disposition to extend its power beyond Iraq’s borders. It lets its commitment to Arab unity simmer on a low flame, and it has substantially lowered Iraq’s profile in the Arab struggle against Israel. Left alone, the Baath says, it is content to carve out a quiet corner in the region, tolerating the diversity of its neighbors. Though the revolution must defend itself, according to the Baath, it does not aspire to total victory.

Khomeini, however, needs the war badly. His revolution, which claims to be mandated by God, contains a universalist imperative which only victory can satisfy. Khomeini cannot contain his mission within the borders of one country. He sees frontiers, being man-made, as artificial barriers. His revolution must cleanse Iran’s neighbors of false gods. He rouses his soldiers against Iraq with a call to liberate the sacred cities of An Najaf and Karbala from Baath corruption. To justify God’s approval, his movement must spread beyond Iraq to the "heretic" states of the Gulf. He presses his revolution on the Islamic rebels in Afghanistan. His followers have become a dynamic fighting force in Lebanon. He sees his revolution as sweeping through Israel to the Mediterranean and beyond. He has called for a holy war, and should the time come when he is brought to a stop, it will be the sign that God recognizes his legitimacy no longer.

And so the struggle of revolutions goes on. Iraq, to win, needs only to avoid losing, and since 1981 it has grasped at every passing straw in the hope of ending the conflict. Iran, when it is willing to discuss terms at all, has set them much higher. It demands reparations heavier than Iraq, or nearly any other nation, could pay. It insists on the freedom of Iranian Shi‘ites to proselytize among Shi‘ites in Iraq. Most audaciously, it stipulates that Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party leadership must go. Sometimes it even says they must be tried as war criminals. These terms add up not to a political settlement but a surrender of the Baath revolution to Khomeini’s Islamic vision.

It is no surprise that these terms are unacceptable to the leadership of Iraq’s regime. But in view of the regime’s oppressive character one must necessarily ask whether the terms are unacceptable to the Iraqi people too. The war is a burden they have endured for more than six years. In the place of the prosperity that was promised them, they have mourned 100,000 sons. Yet, were there serious discontent, would there not also be—even under an oppressive regime—rebellion, strikes, flight from the trenches? Would not the seams of a much-quilted social fabric be pulling conspicuously apart? It is difficult to assess here how much the sense of Iraqi nationalism, Arab identity, support of the revolution or fear of Khomeinism contribute to the popular mood. But the evidence is compelling that the party elite is not isolated in finding Iran’s terms unacceptable. It suggests that Iraqis, though they display little of the Iranians’ noisy élan, are nonetheless committed to fighting on.


"I don’t want to lecture your people on their interests, but certainly American strategists understand that stability in this region is important to the United States. Continuation of this war will lead to the region’s disintegration."

The speaker was Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, who talked with me in his office in Baghdad late one evening in mid-1986. Aziz belongs both to the Revolutionary Command Council, the country’s highest governing body, and the Regional Command, the party’s top echelon. A Christian, he is, like Saddam Hussein, a lifetime Baath revolutionary. In April 1980, not long after Khomeini came to power, he was the target of an assassination attempt by Shi‘ites linked to Teheran. Aziz, articulate in English, is often the public spokesman for Iraqi government positions.

"I can tell you that you don’t have to worry about us," Aziz said. "We can take care of ourselves. We’ve been fighting for six years and all the predictions of our imminent collapse have proven untrue. The question is how long can Iran, with or without Khomeini, take it. Iran has jumped from revolution to war, without ever testing its character as a nation. There may be one day when it tries to push its people to the front and they won’t go. Iran might disintegrate at any time, upsetting stability throughout the Gulf. The same question, from the other side, is how long can the Gulf take it. This is a very vulnerable region, important to the United States, and it is on the point of exhaustion. Leaving aside whether you care about Iraq, your own interests here require that you do something to stop this war."

Without necessarily sharing Aziz’s sanguine view of Iraq’s prospects, most American officials, both in Washington and the Gulf, have come to share his concern. Despite the current glut of oil on the market, there is the recognition that the West must have continued access to the region’s oil fields. By current calculations they contain 60 percent of the world’s reserves. Long after Texas and Alaska, Mexico and the North Sea have run dry, the Gulf will still be pumping oil. Decisive victory or decisive defeat of Iran in the war could cause chaos in the region. Either would create very serious problems for the United States.

After a dozen years of only icy contacts, Washington decided to step up its involvement with Iraq in 1979, when Iran’s revolution began emitting ominous waves. Formal relations, broken off by Iraq over America’s support of Israel in the Six-Day War, had never been restored. During this period Iraq and the Soviet Union had moved closer to each other, while the United States tied itself more intimately to the Iranian shah. Washington actually encouraged Iran’s mischievous promotion of a Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government. Washington’s first serious overture to Baghdad came on the eve of the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran by Iranian students, nine months after Khomeini came to power.

When the Iran-Iraq war broke out a year later, Washington announced that it would maintain a rigorous neutrality. Shortly afterward, however, regular meetings began taking place between high Iraqi and American officials. In 1982 the United States gave the first signs of a "tilt" by extending credits to Iraq—which recently reached a total of $750 million—to buy American agricultural products. In 1983 Donald Rumsfeld, President Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East, called on Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and, in the same year, Washington announced that it would seek to persuade its allies to stop all shipments of arms to Iran. In November 1984 the two governments formally resumed diplomatic relations.

The American government, in a statement of its basic policy on the Iran-Iraq war, dated May 1985, says as follows:

We seek an end to the war that will preserve the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both Iran and Iraq. We welcome constructive international diplomatic efforts for a negotiated conclusion. The US remains committed to freedom of access to the gulf, a matter of vital importance to the international community. The US does not permit US arms and munitions to be shipped to either belligerent and has discouraged all free-world arms shipments to Iran because, unlike Iraq, Iran is adamantly opposed to negotiations or a mediated end to the conflict.

This statement, which keeps the United States at arm’s length from the war, is nonetheless regarded as strongly supportive of the Iraqi position.

Indeed, Washington showed no sign of serious concern about the war until the Iranian breakthrough at Fao last February. Last April, while the battle still raged, Vice President George Bush officially visited the Persian Gulf to show the American flag. He avoided Baghdad, but in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain, states with which the United States has military cooperation agreements, he reiterated an American pledge to keep the Gulf’s sea-lanes open. Bush spoke of the "common security objectives" of the United States and the Gulf countries and he pledged support to them to combat aggression, though he was conspicuously vague about the nature of such support. Still, the visit was an assertion that the United States would consider an Iranian victory as contrary to American interests.

Beyond the Iranian factor, moreover, lay the Soviet question. Notwithstanding the Baath’s rapprochement with Washington and its relentless persecution of local Communists, the Soviets, still Iraq’s chief arms suppliers, remain the preeminent foreign power in Baghdad. Facing a slippage in their own oil production, Moscow has reversed several decades of indifference to Iraq’s Gulf neighbors by undertaking a diplomatic offensive. In the past year they initiated formal relations with the United Arab Emirates and Oman, and they are about to open an embassy in Qatar. They have also established commercial contacts in Saudi Arabia, where they were once totally unwelcome. American diplomats in the Gulf agree that further chaos in the region can help only the Soviet Union. They insist that, though Iran is the immediate threat, the Soviet Union looms more ominously.

Ideally, American interests in the region would be served by a rough triangular balance among Iran, Iraq and the Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia. But the Gulf countries would rather buy their defense than fight for it (a joke circulating in the marketplace in Riyadh runs, "The royal family has decided to go to war against Iran, and has given the contract to South Korea"). Their huge wealth makes them a constant temptation to the other two. For the moment, Iraq has muted its historical claims in the region but Iran has not. Even while waging war on Iraq, Khomeini has sought to subvert at least two Gulf regimes, Kuwait and Bahrain, and no one doubts that if he wins the war he will target the entire area next. With negligible military power in the Gulf, the United States, notwithstanding Bush’s brave vows, could do little to stop him.

"The understanding we reached with [Secretary of State George] Shultz to limit the flow of arms to Iran is important," Tariq Aziz said. "It affects Iran’s ability to carry on the war. Iran doesn’t produce arms and equipment. It can continue only if others provide the capability. Much of the equipment comes from China and North Korea, over which the United States has no control. But a flow of arms continues from the West, as well. It is one of our main problems."

Aziz insisted that Israel continued to make important arms deliveries to Iran. As evidence, he pointed to photographs of captured Israeli equipment routinely displayed in the Baghdad newspapers. Then, in November, a prominent Iranian political figure disclosed that former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane had visited Teheran secretly. A story began emerging that the White House, using Israel as a conduit, had indeed been trading arms in return for Iranian help in the release of American hostages in the Middle East. Led by the White House, U.S. officials nevertheless insisted that the embargo of arms to Iran remained in force. The reports of this episode left the Iraqis more puzzled than ever about American intentions.

Aziz also maintained that, despite American pressure, equipment is still getting through to Iran from Britain, West Germany and Japan. Much of it, classified as non-lethal, receives no American attention, he said, but it is nonetheless important to the Iranian war effort. He particularly cited European trucks that bring troops and supplies to the front and the Japanese boats in which Iran’s soldiers made their way through the marshes into Iraqi territory in 1985 and crossed the Shatt al-Arab into Fao last February. Washington officials, asked about Aziz’s charges, acknowledged that the United States takes no position with its allies on non-lethal sales. Aziz argued that the damage to Iraq was too serious for a business-as-usual attitude, and urged that the President put his full authority behind an embargo. But he was pessimistic about the prospect that Washington would agree.

"Iraq cannot mobilize Western opinion," Aziz said, "because the war is not related to the East-West conflict. We are a Third World country without patrons. We are new in the American arena, furthermore, and we face a prejudice against Arabs which the Israelis have been playing on for years. I think we’ve convinced the United States now that Iraq wants peace. That’s progress. But no one cares. Bush made some good statements during his visit here. But when the shah’s regime disintegrated, the American fleet that was in the Gulf and Indian Ocean could do nothing to save it. And when the embassy in Teheran was taken the U.S. could do nothing. Talk is not enough to safeguard Western interests in this region."

Iraqis believe the United States, particularly if it were willing to work with the Soviet Union, could somehow put an end to the war. In part, this belief emerges from a mentality, common in former colonial countries, which holds that great powers can somehow do anything they choose. The Iraqis say that, together, Washington and Moscow can crush Iran’s capacity to wage war. They do not believe Americans—or, perhaps, Russians either—who tell them that Iran operates in a sphere that is beyond their influence. They say the United States does not care about the Iran-Iraq war.

In fact, officials in the State Department and the Pentagon have reached the point where they care a great deal. Declining to be quoted, they acknowledge in interviews that domestic political conditions permit them to say little publicly about the war, and to do even less. Neither Congress nor the executive branch, they say, is willing to face the implications of a dramatic change in circumstances in the Gulf. The McFarlane episode, with its allegations of arms sales to Iran, suggests strongly, furthermore, that the White House has on its agenda items that carry a higher priority than ending the Iran-Iraq war. Detestable as Americans find Khomeini, the public has not developed positive feelings for Iraq, which is still largely dismissed as an oppressive regime and an enemy of Israel. When asked how Washington would respond if Iranian forces crashed through Iraqi lines and headed for Baghdad, these officials shrug and reply that the United States takes the position that such an event is unlikely.

In both the State Department and the Pentagon, officials admit the United States has no contingency plans for thwarting a Khomeini victory. Conceding the seriousness of the threat, they say the problem has been discussed at middle levels of the bureaucracy but that the secretaries of state and defense have not been willing to place serious policy proposals before the President. Within the past year, Congress has thwarted pledges the President made—though he conspicuously failed to champion them—to sell arms to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. His defeats are evidence enough that the Arabs are an unpopular political cause. "I wouldn’t want to be the guy who had to go before a congressional committee and defend an American bail-out of Iraq," one high official wryly remarked to me. Regretfully, officials in both the State and Defense Departments said Americans have not yet grasped what is at stake, confirming the belief conventionally held throughout the Gulf that Americans are indifferent to what happens in the Iran-Iraq war.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Milton Viorst, who specializes in writing on Middle East affairs, spent several weeks in Iraq and the Persian Gulf last summer. His forthcoming book, Sands of Sorrow: Israel’s Journey From Independence, will be published by Harper & Row in 1987.
  • More By Milton Viorst