Iran has turned the search for peace in the Persian Gulf into a game of Old Maid. Tehran has now succeeded--again--in slipping the losing card to the U.N. Security Council. And the council, or more properly its member states, cannot agree what to do with it.
Last July it looked as though the council could bring off at least an armistice. Unanimously adopting Resolution 598, it demanded immediate cease-fire on all fronts to permit the negotiation of peace. Iraq is willing. Iran, however, has said neither yes nor no and, in its latest talks with U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar, has rebuffed his efforts to pin it down. Now the council must decide whether to go on with this game or to consider measures, such as an arms embargo, to force Iran to the negotiating table. It is not an easy decision.
The Security Council is not a detached tribunal that judges cases on their merits. Like the United Nations overall, it is a political body whose members' interests are directly or indirectly engaged in the conflict. Their purposes remain crossed at the council table as in the gulf.
For the time being, Iran and Iraq are irreconcilable. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's aim is still to replace the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein with a Shia "people's government" and to extract tens if not scores of billions of dollars in reparations from Iraq and its Arab allies. Hussein's aim is to survive. Each side still has a popular base, but it rests on continuing the fight. For Iraq this is sheer necessity in the face of Iran's numerical superiority and refusal to make peace. On the other hand, for Iran now to accept the moderate terms of Resolution 598 after beating off Iraq's invasion-- suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties and ruining its economy--might provoke internal upheaval. Iran has played for time in the diplomatic game. One immediate reason could be that--as Iran keeps proclaiming--it is preparing for a new offensive this winter. The terrain on the southern front is favorable then, with mud and water bogging down Iraq's tanks and heavy weapons, while Iran's infantry can move--albeit with heavy losses--on foot and in boats. Last winter, they fought their way to within a few miles of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city.
The United States and the Soviet Union, despite their agreement on 598, are fundamentally at odds. The proposition that their interests are identical or even parallel is wishful thinking. For starters, each wants urgently to get the other out of the gulf. And the assumption that they both equally want peace is too simple. The United States as soon as possible wants to leave Iran and Iraq independent and viable, with Iran's Shia radicalism firmly in check. But the Soviet Union? Its support for both sides suggests strongly that it is not overly distressed by the prolonged war. Iran and Iraq cutting each other to pieces might well serve the strategic goals of Soviet power. Moscow has been cool to Washington's urging of an arms embargo.
China, for its own reasons, is also unresponsive to an embargo. Little interested in Iraq, it wants no vacuum in the region. Specifically, it wants an Iran strong enough to block Moscow's way and to worry the Soviet flank in Afghanistan, where China's direct interests come into play. U.S. officials have accused China of selling anti-ship Silkworm missiles to Iran, but the Chinese have denied it; last month China said it was no longer selling the missiles on the international arms market, in order to prevent their diversion to Iran.
Other players on the Security Council have their own agendas. If the United States demands an arms embargo against Iran, it may run aground. A nine-vote majority would be needed for an embargo; failing that, the Soviet Union and China would not even have to veto--and there is no sign of nine votes. Bulgaria is a sure abstention. Japan, economically linked to Iran by oil, is expected to second the Soviet suggestion of more time to explore a diplomatic settlement. West Germany says it will do anything the Soviet Union and the United States can agree upon. Argentina, now nonaligned and nationalist, has its own qualms about sanctions. The three African members of the council would add more than enough abstentions to block an embargo.
Frustrating though it be, there is no visible way to get off dead center. One imaginative outside idea--for a U.N. naval peacekeeping force to convoy ships--hangs in midair for at least one decisive reason: Iraq, most menaced on land, says it will not accept a cease-fire in the gulf alone. With its Exocet missiles, Iraq can make that stick.
Nothing lasts forever. The Gulf War will end one day. There is no telling what can sensibly be done to hasten that day on tolerable terms. Meanwhile, the United States has no real choice but to remain strong and quiet in the gulf, in its relations with Arab states as in its confrontations and other dealings with Iran--against the day, should it ever come, when Tehran at last wants a way out.