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A third option for the US in the Gulf

THE United States will stumble into another fiasco if, in the Persian Gulf, it chooses between confrontation with Iran, as the administration seems to prefer, or an abdication of responsibilities, as some sentiment in Congress suggests. There is a third option. It hinges on a tacit understanding with Iran concerning the rules of the game. The Middle East itself provides a valuable precedent for tacit agreement despite bitter adversity. During the civil war in Lebanon, the US actually facilitated such an understanding between Syria and Israel. The intermediary was L. Dean Brown, a senior US diplomat. Between themselves, the parties had fought three bitter wars (1948, 1967, 1973), and Syria was utterly unwilling to negotiate any comprehensive agreement with Israel. Syria then was as radical as Iran has been in the 1980s. Yet an agreement establishing limits, or ``red lines,'' for both parties was worked out and a fourth, unintended Syrian-Israeli war was prevented.

This understanding suggests a useful model for US diplomacy in the Gulf. Despite a great deal of loose talk, it is doubtful that Iran deliberately seeks a military confrontation with the US. The Iranians, to be sure, are neither moderates nor in a mood for conciliatory gestures toward the US. They are unlikely to relinquish their freedom to pursue Iraq in the Gulf even if it entailed a clash with the US. Moreover, confronted by a crudely-designed American challenge, the xenophobic Iranians will lash out against the US and especially the vulnerable Gulf states, regardless of consequences. In this event, Iran's most likely weapons would be Shiite terrorism or, as they have signaled, surreptitious mining of key points in the waterway.

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Yet out of self-interest, rather than moderation, Iran is unlikely to eschew a tacit understanding which acknowledges its own special status in the Gulf but also meets US requirements. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini regime remains brutal and fanatical. But Iran's basic interests may have exerted a restraining influence over its actions. Perceiving their regime as nearing an epic victory over Iraq, the ayatollahs are likely to appreciate the risk of driving the ``Great Satan ''into the eager arms of the Iraqis, already receiving Soviet support, and thus jeopardizing the outcome of the war for which Iran has sacrificed so much. In this regard, it is worth recalling that the majority of attacks against shipping have been carried out by Iraq, and that Tehran has so far refrained from attacking US ships in the Gulf.

One important indicator confirming this interpretation of Iran's conduct is the attitude of the smaller Gulf states other than Kuwait. They have been anxiously watching the escalation of the conflict in the region and would rather see a US-Iranian understanding than a confrontation in which they are liable to become pawns. For that reason the Gulf states have maintained full diplomatic relations with Tehran and have been reluctant to side too openly with the US in a confrontation which they do not regard as inevitable. This pervasive anxiety would prompt most Gulf rulers to use their considerable skills in facilitating a US-Iranian understanding about rules of conduct in this crucial waterway.

What should be presented to Iran through such intermediaries is not a provocative challenge but a coherent choice between carrots and sticks. By contrast, any proposal which in the name of freedom of navigation provides cover for one belligerent (Iraq) at the expense of the other (Iran), virtually guarantees a military confrontation. Moreover, an arrangement which leaves Iraq free to continue its attacks on neutral shipping in the Gulf can hardly appeal to Iran. This is something which the two Gulf antagonists will understand, even if it eludes US strategists. Thus, the US should reaffirm its neutrality and agree to refrain from assisting the Iraqi war effort in the Gulf either directly or indirectly. Tankers going to and from various ports should follow predetermined and mutually acceptable routes. Iran's stake in the Gulf should be acknowledged, but as a quid pro quo Iran would be expected to cease attacks against non-Iraqi vessels.

These carrots should go along with a stick. If Iran refuses to deal on such a basis and subsequently threatens any vessel flying the US flag, the Iranians should be told in no uncertain terms that there could be massive US retaliation. The point should be made that this response would not necessarily be linked in place, scope, or timing to the theater in which the Iranian attack took place.

Success in achieving a tacit understanding with Iran is by no means certain. Indeed, the obstacles are very real. Yet if Iran were to turn down a ``red line'' agreement and chose instead to attack a US vessel, a vigorous US naval and air retaliation could threaten the balance in the Gulf war, to Iran's distinct disadvantage. Thus, a non-public but very firm American threat may well be taken seriously in Tehran. If so, the US would protect its interests - oil and freedom of navigation - without a military confrontation.

Of course, in the end, if Iran's response to a tacit approach is negative, US flagging of Kuwaiti vessels may become inescapable. If this leads to an Iranian attack, the administration would be able to tell the American people and Congress (as well as the Japanese, the European allies and the Gulf governments) that everything possible had been done to prevent bloodshed. Without this, the use of force alone is likely to be self-defeating, and, as in Lebanon several years ago, it could lead to a humiliating withdrawal as a result of both domestic and allied opposition.

Avner Yaniv, a visiting professor of government at Georgetown University, is author of ``Dilemmas of Security: Politics, Strategy and the Israeli Experience in Lebanon,'' Oxford University Press. Robert J. Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University, is author of ``The Oil Decade: Conflict and Cooperation in the West.''

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