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A Crusade Stalled, a Risk Averted : Its Role in Gulf, U.S. Has Helped Ayatollah to Break Faith

<i> Robert C. McFarlane, former national-security adviser to President Reagan, is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington</i> .

The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s capitulation to his more pragmatic advisers and the “beginning of the end” of his eight-year theocratic crusade to turn back the clock throughout the world of Islam are events of profound importance to other states in the region, to industrialized democracies and to all others with a stake in global stability.

What was seen, as recently as five years ago, as one of the most dangerous and intractable threats facing the Western world in the late 20th Century has been checked.

It is important that we understand what has happened and how we contributed to producing this rather promising turn of events if we are to be able to advance from checking it to consolidating a more stable modus vivendi with Iran. But before getting to that, it is worthwhile to recall just how historic a change in circumstances this has been and how close we came to possible catastrophe.

First, try to recall another example in which a first-generation revolutionary has broken faith with the revolution that he has inspired--not Lenin, Mao, Ho, Castro, Nasser or Kadafi. First-generation revolutionaries cannot afford to change course; the revolutionary goals that they use to justify enormous sacrifice, death and suffering are their raisons d’etre . To break faith with the original goals after so much death and agony--to say to the faithful that you were wrong, misguided or inept--is out of the question for most revolutionary leaders. But this is essentially what Khomeini has done.

Consider also what might have been. Khomeini’s original goals included the gradual subversion of the existing order and the installation of fundamentalist extremists through the sponsorship of radical Shia movements throughout the Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia. Concurrently, he hoped to expel the Western presence from this same area, creating paradoxically a power vacuum in the most resource-rich, geopolitically dominant terrain in the world.

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Setting aside the strategic importance of such waterways as the straits of Gibraltar, Suez, Malacca and Lombok, traffic through which might ultimately have been affected by Khomeini’s fundamentalist crusade, we get a sense of the risk that we have averted by considering the importance of the Persian Gulf itself. Like Imperial Russia before it, the Soviet Union long has coveted Persia as an avenue for projecting power, for commercial benefit and, more recently, for the strategic leverage to be gained in controlling two-thirds of the world’s crude-oil reserves. To dominate the Persian Gulf in the late 20th Century is to be able to bring the international economy to its knees. In short, had Khomeini succeeded in achieving his goal--or if a like-minded successor decides to try again after 5 or 10 years--the global equilibrium would be fundamentally tilted against Western interests.

Why hasn’t this scenario developed, what did we contribute to preventing it, and how can we avoid it in the future?

The central reason for Khomeini’s failure was the effect within Iran of the prolonged, unwinnable war with Iraq. None of the advantages that Iran originally enjoyed--superior numbers (by 3 to 1), better original equipment or the inspirational value of defending the revolution against aggression--could compensate for the ineptitude of its own military leaders or, ultimately, Iraq’s gradual development of its decisive advantages in air power. As this air power was applied to the interdiction of oil production, refining and shipping--Iran’s source of hard currency--Iran lost the ability to import weapons for the war and food for its population. And in that population every family has lost a son or more. Even as powerful a concept as religious martyrdom will lose ultimately to grief.

For the Iranian masses and the more street-smart faction among their leaders, an apparently unwinnable war accompanied by worsening poverty were unsustainable conditions. For Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani it was a matter of personal political expediency--change the policy or be swept away. For Khomeini it became a matter of salvaging the idea of the revolution and enough of the faithful to fight another day.

The second factor was the failure of the hoped-for revolution outside Iran. After eight years of investment, Iran could count only Lebanon as a state in which Shia partisans were sufficiently organized and powerful to exercise a measure of influence on events. And even there it was at the sufferance of Iran’s uncertain ally, Syria. Nowhere else had Shia minorities rallied to the cause in significant numbers. Far from serving as a platform for pan-Islamic leadership, Khomeini’s incitement to violence led to his isolation within the Islamic community that he sought to lead.

But neither of these conditions--Iran’s inability to win the war or the rallying of Arab opposition--would have developed without the intervention of the United States and other allies. The purpose of that intervention--too often clouded by extraneous declarations of principle--was to prevent either side from winning and, by succeeding in that strategy, to bring them both to a negotiated settlement in which we could re-establish over time a stable relationship with Iran--the strategic prize of the area. It had little to do with defending “freedom of the seas” or neutrality.

When in early 1987 Iran made a strategic gain on the Faw Peninsula, we tilted blatantly in favor of Iraq as we had at similar moments before. Presumably if Iraq had ever shown a real prospect of winning, we would have sought to cut off its supply of arms and oppose the Baghdad regime in other ways as well.

Whether or not the Iranian leaders actually believed that the United States would enter the war against them--I can imagine Rafsanjani making that case to Khomeini for self-serving reasons--is moot. What is important is that they could see enough bipartisan support in our Congress to sustain our naval presence, which, at the end of the day, would ensure that Iraq received the supplies it needed to dominate the war and to squeeze the Iranian economy dry.

Finally, there was one more important factor in the minds of Iranian pragmatists. Since at least May, 1986, they have known that the United States was prepared to accept their revolution within Iran and, subject to their agreement to renounce terrorism and to foreclose expansion beyond their borders, that we were ready to work out a modus vivendi for getting along with them. They also knew that we would never allow them a victory over Iraq. Ultimately it was that credible U.S. commitment, underwritten by the determined diplomacy of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, the sacrifice of many American lives and the resilient political will of both political parties that brought a first-generation revolutionary leader to the negotiating table.

We ought to remember how we did it, for we may have to do it again. We adopted a sound political strategy, backed it up with power and the will to use it, and demonstrated the ability to sustain the policy at home and among allies.


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