Despite Bombast, Gulf Is Bomb Without Detonator

<i> Richard W. Bulliet is a professor of history and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. </i>

For six and a half years, war between Iran and Iraq seemed uninteresting. For the past six months, it has appeared dangerously fascinating.

The latter perception is explained by the international flotilla of warships schooled in the Persian Gulf like herrings waiting for a barracuda attack. But what explains the former?

The first oil shock of 1974 taught everyone that the petroleum reserves of the gulf are the lifeblood of the West. Logically, this meant that the Soviet Union might fancy any disruption of oil flow, and that unfriendly potentates might try to hog it all or jack the prices still higher. Such imagined threats excited thoughts of war: to blunt a possible Soviet thrust; to thwart a strong man like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein; or to seize the oil fields and thus assure continued energy for the West.


No one knew what sort of war might occur, but common wisdom declared that any major violence in the gulf would surely escalate and trigger foreign involvement.

Then came the Iran-Iraq War. Some analysts styled it the Gulf War from its outset because it seemed impossible that it would not expand. Years passed. Threats of escalation came and went. Nothing happened. Iranian and Iraqi soldiers died by the thousands; cities and ships were bombarded; economies bled. Yet foreign onlookers continued to find the fray boring. Compared to their expectations, nothing truly important was happening. The Iran-Iraq War did not become a Gulf War.

Why had the prognosticators missed their guess? It is not an idle question now when observers are again feeling a teetering sensation: the brink of the Gulf War that inexplicably hasn’t happened.

Were it mere happenstance that the war did not escalate and become internationalized during its first six years, current fears might be well founded. But there were sound reasons for the Iran-Iraq War not becoming a Gulf War. These reasons still obtain, and still act as a powerful break upon the rumored slide toward war.

First, the superpowers realize that the gulf would be a miserable place to come to blows. But they equally realize that, given their interest, shooting involvement on the part of one could easily draw the other in.

Second, Iran has never wanted a war with the United States. Iran’s leaders want their Islamic republic to survive, not to burn while they hunker underground in some mullah-bunker. Their dealings with Israel and Lt. Col. Oliver North were not worth it just to acquire arms. Iran can arm itself from other sources without jeopardizing its ideological purity. More likely, in a curious parody of President Reagan’s thinking (or vice versa), the Iranians were trying to open a channel to moderates in the United States in hopes of eventually improving relations.


Third, Saudi Arabia and the nearby sheikdoms do not want a Gulf War. Iran will remain the colossus across the water when the United States has long forgotten places like Farsi Island. The Arabs will have to live with whatever Iran is like, and they fear that vigorous efforts to support American attacks on Iran will halt them when the Americans go home.

Fourth, Iraq does not want all-out war between the United States and Iran. Such a war would ultimately be fought on Iraqi soil since it is logistically absurd to visualize a Marine beachhead on the worthless, barren Iranian coast when the war front is far away on the Iraqi frontier.

Since no one wants a Gulf War, we are no more likely to have one now than we were five years ago. But this does not mean the parties oppose war-like gestures and bombast. Anti-American harangues stir the blood of Iran’s faithful. American impersonations of the cowboy gunslinger with the heart of gold protecting honest, hard working oil shippers from predatory Iranians trying to grab the whole gulf bolsters government popularity and helps the tone for former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane’s cake and Bible. Saudi Arabia’s get-tough language (and stay-soft behavior) enhances requests for U.S. arms. And Iraq’s deft prodding of the United States into taking its side elates the whole Arab world.

Talking instead of fighting is diplomatic, however, only when the talk is of peace. As the realization sets in that the gulf conflict is a bomb without a detonator, increasingly reckless shows of force will punctuate the rhetoric. Given suitable provocation, can we attack a Revolutionary Guard base and get away with it? Probably. How about two? Three?

Despite recent missile attacks on U.S. owned tankers, the Administration correctly observes that the brink of war is not in sight. But leaving aside the alarmist tenor of congressional objections to our naval deployment, it is legitimate to ask what good we are doing there. A Gulf War isn’t about to break out. But the Iran-Iraq War grinds on. Ending it would be a worthy diplomatic goal. But that will require greater flexibility at the United Nations and containment of our propensity to wrap neutrality in the Iraqi flag.