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The Gulf cease-fire

AFTER watching with the rest of the world eight years of carnage in Iran-Iraq war, we welcome the news of an imminent cease-fire. The human and economic cost levied by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who in a grab for territory invaded Iran in 1980, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who stubbornly refused to end the fighting once his troops pushed the Iraqis out, is staggering. The combined casualties from the war have reached 1 million.

Credit for keeping diplomatic channels for a cease-fire open rest squarely with UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar and the Security Council. Security Council Resolution 598 will be the basis for talks. Among other things, the resolution calls for a UN-supervised cease-fire; prisoner exchange; withdrawal of forces to internationally recognized boundaries; establishment of a panel to determine which side was responsible for the war; and negotiation of ``a comprehensive, just, and honorable settlement.''

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Plenty of hard bargaining lies ahead. Take the provision about pulling troops back to recognized borders. A 1937 treaty between Iran and Iraq gave Iraq full control over the Shatt al Arab waterway, Iraq's only direct access to the Persian Gulf. In 1975, the two nations signed a treaty to redraw the line based on a principle of international law which says that when two countries share a river boundary, the border runs along the middle of the deepest channel. That gave Iran control over roughly half the waterway. In exchange, Iraq was to get seven other disputed areas, plus the withdrawal of Iranian support for Kurdish rebels fighting in Iraq. Iraq repudiated the 1975 pact before it invaded Iran. Iran did not. Whose border will be used?

It would seem that the two countries have enough reasons to keep talks going. But the international community could add incentive by helping the two nations rebuild their shattered economies.

A carefully balanced rebuilding is crucial to the region's long-term peace and stability. Until the ayatollah toppled the Shah in 1979, Iran saw itself as the Gulf policeman. Hussein tried to take advantage of the unsettled situation in post-Shah Iran. He hoped his invasion would deliver a blow decisive enough to replace Persian Iran with Arab Iraq as the Gulf's major power. A peace treaty can try to strike a balance between each side's legitimate security needs - and those of the entire region. But if one nation rebuilds faster than the other, a balance achieved by treaty could in practice be tipped toward the country with the stronger economy and more stable political regime.

Two sources of aid spring to mind: the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. At least since World War II, the United States has seen the Gulf as vital to Western security. That should translate into as great a willingness to provide reconstruction aid to Iran and Iraq as it has a willingness to send in the Navy. The US should begin now to reduce its naval presence in the Gulf, to closer to pre-escort levels. As for the GCC, its members have been unabashed supporters of Iraq in the war. Extending aid to Iran as well as Iraq might help reduce tensions that built between Iran and its other Arab neighbors during the war.

At this stage, Iraq appears to hold the edge in its ability to rebuild. It has a smaller population, has sustained less damage, and at least for the moment has a more stable government - although it is $60 billion in debt. The important point for now, however, is that the peace process appears to have begun in earnest. The havoc the war has wreaked on Iran and Iraq should prompt them to keep narrowing their differences until they arrive at a mutually satisfactory treaty.

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