Iraqi missiles succeeded in hitting the U.S.S. Stark in part because no one on board expected trouble from Iraq. Had the attacking plane been Iranian, the ship would have been prepared to defend itself. This insight points to an important fact: Although officially neutral in the war, the United States in fact has good relations with Iraq and hostile relations with Iran.
And rightly so, for Iran threatens Iraq and with it vital American interests. The fall of the government in Iraq would enormously enhance Iranian influence, profoundly endanger the supply of oil, threaten pro-American regimes throughout the area, and upset the Arab-Israeli balance. As political analyst Frederick Axelgard correctly notes, "An Iranian victory over Iraq could well constitute the most serious setback to western interests in the Middle East since the end of World War II."
Toward this end, the United States must take clear measures to demonstrate that it opposes the appeasement of Iran and considers an Iranian victory inimical to western interests. This means building ties with Iraq.
The United States currently provides Iraq with commodity credits worth $800 million annually; repayment terms could be eased. Opening a line of export-import credits was discussed early in 1986; The United States backed down then but should now move forward. In addition, other aid programs to Iraq should be explored.
Politically, the United States should coordinate a sustained campaign with its European allies to isolate Iran. Last year's efforts against Libya for its support of terrorism can serve as a model, for Iran too supports terrorism.
The United States might also consider providing military support for Baghdad to rectify the military damage done to Iraq by the arms-for-hostage swap. This means giving Iraq intelligence and weapons. We now know that the United States has been providing Iraq information on Iranian troop concentrations and damage assessments of Iraqi attacks on Iranian targets; Washington should also consider transferring arms to Iraq. Although Iraq operates essentially a Soviet-built system and has plenty of arms, it could make good use of certain American weapons, including remotely scatterable mines, antipersonnel mines, and specialized radars.
Helping Iraq militarily has an important side benefit: It offers the best way for Washington to strengthen its position in Tehran. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's men will never love us, but they could be made to fear us, and the best way to make them worry about U.S. actions is to help their deadly foe. A reduction of Iranian aggression hinges on Iranian fear of the United States. This approach is consistent with U.S. policy elsewhere in the world; just as arms control efforts depend not on gentle words and good will but on Soviet fears of American arms, so too with Iran. When the Ayatollah begins to worry about Washington, be assured he will take note and try to win its favor. Helping Iraq is the strategic defense initiative of relations with Iran.
A number of objections may be raised against helping Iraq. Some might argue that the United States should pull back and have nothing to do with either belligerent in the Iraq-Iran war. Prior involvement has turned out badly, it is true, but the importance of the conflict makes it impossible to ignore. At stake is the possible resurgence of virulently anti-U.S. fundamentalist Islam, the security of Western access to Persian Gulf oil, and potential Soviet predominance in the region. Abdication is not a responsible choice for the United States.
Congress might object to such an initiative. But the alternatives — arms for hostages or doing nothing — are even worse. The first is ludicrous and the second a recipe for impotence. There is no reason to assume in advance that Congress would turn down a well-conceived effort to reduce American losses in the Persian Gulf region.
To the argument that such a policy may drive the Iranians toward the Soviet Union, the answer is that the Iranian leadership has its own profound reasons for keeping its distance from Moscow, such as its fears of Soviet expansion and of Communist ideology. As for the danger that moderates in Iran will be weakened, recent events should have made it clear that there are no moderates at high levels of the Iranian government. Indeed, thwarting Iran's war effort is the best way to strengthen the forces of moderation in Tehran.
The only serious argument against arming Iran has to do with the danger that Baghdad will turn against the pro-American states in the region, prominently Israel, but also Kuwait and other weak states in the Gulf region. There is reason to worry; for decades, the Iraqi government has stood at the forefront of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, engaged in terrorism and allied itself with the Soviet Union. Arming Iraq is a calculated risk; no one can guarantee that American weapons will not end up being used against Israel.
But given the new realities created by the Iranian revolution and the seven years of bloody conflict between Iran and Iraq, the chances of this happening are minimal. Iraq is aligned with Egypt and Iran with Syria; need one say more? Iraq, now the de facto protector of the regional status quo, has changed its position toward its Arab neighbors, the United States, and even Israel; its leaders no longer consider the Palestinian issue their problem. Iran, the revolutionary state, is more likely to use its American weapons against Israel. It already has 1,000 troops in Lebanon making up "the Golan brigade." This reversal of roles suggests the proper direction for U.S. policy.
The measures suggested here are meant primarily to undo the political and military consequences of the covert U.S. tilt toward Iran. If reciprocated by Iraq, they could provide the basis for a longer term relationship. For instance, the United States might promote Iraq's re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Egypt. Full Iraqi relations with Cairo would further legitimize the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and enhance its stability. With the easing of its Arab isolation, Egypt would feel more confident about improving ties with Israel.
This scheme is merely one example of how the United States could coordinate its diplomacy in the Gulf and in the Arab-Israeli arena to advance peace in both spheres. But to pursue such possibilities requires a change of thinking in Washington, including a willingness to build relations with Iraq.
Daniel Pipes is executive director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.