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Mistaken nostalgia about Iran

IF anything is clear from the current flap over the United States initiative toward Iran, it is how easily we forget. It's not just the seven years of Ayatollah Khomeini's bitter diatribes against the American ``great Satan,'' or the 444-day trauma of the US hostages held in Tehran, or the violent extremism fueled by Islamic Iran which is threatening to drive the US from the Middle East. The dangerous lapse of memory here extends much further into the past and raises the risk that US policy in the Gulf is being led into a regressive, mistake-filled rut of major significance. To begin with, the Reagan administration has forgotten that the monodimensional arms-supplier role the US adopted toward Iran in the 1970s fed the Shah's grandiose regional ambitions. While we thought we were buying regional stability, we were actually encouraging him to ignore the domestic predicament that was smoldering beneath his feet and thereby indirectly contributed to the chaos that followed his demise. Now, alleging to seek an opening to moderates in the Khomeini regime, we revert to the guise of arms-suppliers. Our actions, though, have not benefited the ``moderates'' in Iran but rather have played into the hands of the extremists who want to continue to prosecute the war. Seemingly as impervious as was the Shah, these hard-liners ignore the war's backbreaking impact on Iran's economy and the yet untold social and political consequences that will follow. Hence, there is no favorable impact on Iran internally that could conceivably justify US actions.

Even more astounding is the argument that giving arms and spare parts would yield a more peaceable Iranian approach to the war in the Gulf. To the contrary. Since Robert McFarlane's secret mission (and the transfer of US arms) began last year, Iran has mounted perhaps the most threatening campaigns of the war. The Fao offensive in February and the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Mehran in July produced rampant fears that a demoralized Iraq might soon collapse. While in retrospect that assessment appears overdrawn, it still underscores the war's unpredictability and the unlikelihood that United States arms transfers to Iran could be calibrated precisely enough to avoid a potentially decisive impact on the course of the war.

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So why did the Reagan administration get involved with Iran? At least in part, we have seen the White House play out a deep-seated but regressive nostalgia for the days of the Shah. US strategic thinkers are so completely taken with Iran's strategic size and location, and with the way the Shah once applied these assets to provide a ready-made defense for US interests in the Gulf, that they have come to ascribe an aura of inevitability to the future of US-Iranian relations. Pulled as if by gravity toward Iran's vast geo-strategic land mass and blinded by implicit faith in a joint Iranian-American destiny in the Gulf, White House decisionmakers fabricated an opening where they thought one must be found to exist, although none did.

But even had an opening existed, what might the US gain from a future Iranian regime that could justify discarding its policy stands of neutrality in the Gulf war; squeezing arms supplies to Iran; and not bargaining with terrorists? The answer is, ``Disappointingly little.'' For there will never be another regime in Iran like the Shah's on which the US can rely to defend Western interests in the Gulf single-handedly. Even if anti-Americanism dies down, Iranian nationalism and dignity will prevent recurrence of its overweening embrace of America. In short, the geo-strategic prize in the Gulf is not there for just anyone's taking, and the US should not abandon major regional interests by wishing it were.

Furthermore, Washington, having seen the intimate relationship with the Shah collapse under its own weight, should not even want to try that again. The most that should be hoped for with a post-Khomeini government is a reasonably open political dialogue, healthy commercial exchange, and perhaps a modicum of mutual strategic support. This implies immediately, however, that Washington will have to seek additional sources of regional support for its interests in the immensely important Persian Gulf region. That is, even after resuming the best possible ties with Iran, the US would have to maintain reasonably good relations with the two other power centers in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Iraq - the very countries (especially Iraq) to which it has just done a tremendous disservice.

This aspect of the US's turning its back on Iraq at a time of great crisis points to a final set of lessons from the past. For Iraqis, recent US actions revive bitter memories of US support for Kurdish insurgents in the 1970s, when a bloody civil war against the central government in Baghdad cost nearly 20,000 lives.

Significantly, the US has made a similar strategic miscalculation once before at a time of upheaval in the Middle East. Again it involved the US's minimizing Iraq's contribution to a stable regional status quo and chasing a strategic long shot who posed serious immediate threats to Western interests at the time.

Iraq was a founding member of the Baghdad Pact in the 1950s and thereby the only Arab state formally supporting containment of the Soviet Union. Until it became a barrier against the expansion of the Ayatollah's fundamentalist revolution, this was the last time Iraq played a major regional role in support of Western interests. But the Eisenhower administration, after hustling Iraq into this ``northern tier'' alliance, refused to join (despite strong Pentagon recommendations to do so) and left Britain as the pact's only Western member.

The Iraqi government's guilt by association with the British colonial image left it severely shaken (the CIA's words) by the 1956 British-French-Israeli invasion of Suez and the ensuing political crises it spawned. Nevertheless, Washington repeatedly stonewalled Iraqi requests for enhanced arms support and refused to dispatch US military aircraft on ``show-the-flag'' missions (again rejecting Pentagon urgings).

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Then as now, the major obstacle to effective United States assistance for Iraq was its enmity toward Israel. But again, then as now, a very important secondary reason existed: The State Department was earnestly pursuing a strategic diplomatic opening with Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom it perceived as more important than Iraq to US strategic objectives in the area. Thus, the US desire not to alienate strategically placed regional ``devils'' - Mr. Nasser in the 1950s and Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s - has twice left Iraq out in the cold in periods of serious regional crisis.

Iraq's pro-Western regime finally met its violent demise in July 1958, catching everyone off guard. US marines were dispatched to Lebanon to contain the regional repercussions, but the damage was done and the West's standing in the Middle East has never been the same. Today a similar catastrophic turning point awaits us if Iraq collapses before the Iranian onslaught. The difference is, we have been warned of it for nearly five years. Has no one in the White House been listening?

Frederick W. Axelgard is a fellow in Middle East studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

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