PHILADELPHIA — Both combatants in the Persian Gulf war have now had a chance to slam the United States. After Iranian officials spun the arms-for-hostage trap and then leaked the story to the press, Iraqis proceeded to bomb the U.S. Navy frigate Stark. But for all the drama of these episodes, neither of them alters fundamental American interests in the Gulf. Nor do they affect the basic thrust of our policy, which should be to help Iraq.
Many Americans wish a plague on both Iraq and Iran, and with good reason. Baghdad started the war, Teheran continues it. The one uses chemical weapons, the other sends teenagers to suicide deaths. Domestically, Baghdad is harsh, Teheran fanatical. Both favor the Soviet Union.
These disagreeable similarities are important. Still, a cool assessment of American interests reveals that the two states are not equal. To see why not, recall four of the basic premises in American foreign policy:
First: Help resist a revolutionary state. Revolutionary regimes usually torment their citizens and attack their neighbors. They also portray the United States as the prime enemy. The Baghdad regime was once revolutionary; for 25 years after its radicalization in 1958, it sought to dominate the Arabs, lead the fight against Israel and challenge America.
But much has changed of late. Having learned something from the folly of starting the war, Iraqi leaders seem less likely than in the past to mirror aggressive ambitions. Indeed, Iraqi interests and policies now roughly parallel the West's. Iraq today defends those Arab states of the Middle East — such as Jordan and Egypt — that are most threatened by Iran's message of radical fundamentalist Islam and are most friendly to the United States and most open to negotiations with Israel.
Iran, too, has changed, and much for the worse. Iran's 70-year history of good relations with America is over, as the Islamic republic rejects everything American. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sees American culture as the main impediment to building an Islamic society along the lines of his fundamentalist vision. He hates the United States and does all possible to harm its interests. Accordingly, Iran endangers oil shipments from the Persian Gulf, it jeopardizes pro-American states throughout the Middle East and it threatens to upset the Arab-Israel balance. Clearly, American interests now lie more with Iraq and its allies, including Kuwait.
Second: Help fight an aggressor. In 1980, when Iraq threatened Iran, our interests lay at least partly with Iran. But Iraq has been on the defensive since the summer of 1982, and Washington now belongs firmly on its side. This is not to say that an Iraqi victory would serve United States interests. Hardly, for an Iraqi success would open the way for the Soviet Union to advance into Iran. But Iraq is nowhere near victory.
Looking to the future, should Iraq once again take the offensive, an unlikely but not impossible change, the United States should switch again and consider giving assistance to Iran.
Third: Promote regional balance. In the long term, the Persian Gulf will stabilize only if Iraq and Iran, the two local powers, have roughly equal strength. The United States should do what it can to assure that Iraq survives as a counter to Iran. Ideally, this means a return to the status quo ante. At minimum, it means the survival of an independent government in Baghdad.
Fourth: Promote peace. Americans should never wish that a war continue indefinitely, regardless of how distasteful the regimes involved, no matter how attractive the war's short-term benefits. In the Persian Gulf, the United States can encourage a settlement by indicating to Iran that it cannot win — and therefore, that it should negotiate an end to hostilities.
There is a precedent for support for Iraq — cooperation with the Soviet Union in World War II. Franklin D. Roosevelt saw Hitler as even worse than Stalin; further, the Germans seemed likely to defeat the Russians. Working with the Communists in Moscow was distasteful but temporarily necessary and, in retrospect, absolutely correct. Along similar lines, the United States should take steps to bolster Iraq's defenses.
Daniel Pipes is director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and editor of Orbis, its quarterly journal.