Take Hussein Out and Reengage the Iranians

Howard R. Teicher served on the staff of the National Security Council from 1982-87

The policies of the Bush and Clinton administrations have failed to contain the "outlaw" regimes of Iraq and Iran. Seven years after Operation Desert Storm, the allied coalition is shattered, Saddam Hussein's regime remains entrenched, the Iraqi president's personal stature in the Arab world is growing and Russia, China and Europe are courting Iran. Meanwhile, America's Arab allies distance themselves from U.S. policies in the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

Before U.S. influence diminishes any further, the regional balance of power must be changed to favor America. This goal can be achieved by adopting a strategy that liberates Iraq from Hussein's grip while engaging Iran in a new, constructive relationship.

Neither international agreements nor misplaced Western notions of deterrence through sanctions, now embodied in a policy of containment, will eliminate the threat Hussein poses to world peace. Indeed, even before U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan sought the Security Council's blessing for his diplomatic mission to Baghdad, the council had approved a resolution authorizing Iraq to sell $10.66 billion of oil on the world market annually. That's nearly as much as Iraq sold in 1989. This concession, originally intended to soften the blow of air strikes, represents one of the most significant achievements that Hussein's brinkmanship has yet produced.

The United States has only halfheartedly tried to remove Hussein by supporting coups and internal conspiracies. A broad-based insurrection erupted in southern Iraq immediately following the Gulf War, but it was crushed by Hussein's Republican Guards. When Iraqi opposition forces, with the backing of the Central Intelligence Agency, fomented a rebellion in northern Iraq in 1996, Washington did not intervene and the rebellion collapsed.

These attempts failed because Hussein is clever, ruthless and conniving. Yet, despite television images of chanting pro-Hussein crowds, Iraq is ripe for insurrection. The United States and Britain, together with Arab members of the coalition that fought Iraq in 1991, must find a way to bring it off.

Most U.S. allies probably will counter that this strategy is too aggressive and wrongheaded, that it risks further alienating Arabs from the West, possibly even enhancing the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism. They will recommend staying the course of containment, sanctions and diplomacy. But sanctions have not and will not defang the Iraqi menace, and Hussein will renege, as he has consistently done in the past, on his commitments, no matter how severe the threatened punishment. Although the short-term costs of encouraging rebellion against Hussein will be high, the long-term price of permitting the Iraqi leader to achieve his goals will be higher still.

It will not be easy for America's leaders to adopt this "hawkish" approach. It flagrantly contradicts the Clinton administration's bent toward multilateralism, a policy it continues to pursue in the face of protests from Russia, France and others seeking commercial advantage in a post-sanctions Iraq. Moscow, chafing at its weakened position in Europe as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization expands eastward, is reasserting itself in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf at Washington's expense. To the Russians, the Gulf remains a chessboard on which "the great game" of who will dominate Southwest Asia, and its natural resources, is played out. Moscow does not need to be ruled by communists to be a dangerous adversary. Self-interest demands that the United States play to win.

The United States successfully helped liberate Afghanistan from the Soviet Union and Chad from Libya's Moammar Kadafi. It must do the same for the Iraqi people. Toward that end, Washington should take the following steps to eliminate Hussein's regime and help a democratic Iraq emerge in the aftermath:

* Recognize a provisional government of Iraq organized on democratic principles and reflecting Iraq's ethnic diversity.

* Restore the safe haven in northern Iraq so a provisional government could extend its authority there, establish an exclusion zone in southern Iraq free of the Iraqi army and enforce the "no-fly zones" to protect the new government.

* Lift sanctions in liberated areas to provide humanitarian relief to Iraqis living there.

* Release frozen Iraqi assets, about $1.6 billion in the United States and Britain, to the provisional government to finance the insurrection.

* Establish a Radio Free Iraq (as is now under discussion).

* Provide the provisional government with military equipment, training and logistical assistance.

* Conduct air strikes against the Republican Guards, security services and military infrastructure that keep Hussein in power.

* Strengthen the current U.S. military posture by including ground forces capable of supporting and, if necessary, protecting the provisional government.

Ousting Hussein would not, in and of itself, tip the regional balance of power in America's favor. To achieve the broader goal, the United States must compete with Russia, China and France for greater influence in Iran. A policy of constructive engagement helped bring about an end to the apartheid regime in South Africa. A comparable dialogue and reconciliation between Washington and Tehran, ever mindful of the political forces in Iran, can slow the pace of strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran while reducing the level of tension in the Persian Gulf.

The political situation in Iran is quite different from that inside Iraq. The Iranians elected a pragmatic theologian, Mohammad Khatami, to be their new president. Khatami, who was not the candidate of the ruling party, has signaled his desire to see a dialogue develop, not between the two governments, but between ordinary Americans and Iranians. The warm welcome received by American wrestlers in Tehran last week was certainly a fulfillment of his hopes, as was the State Department announcement, on Feb. 25, encouraging Americans to travel to Iran.

But there are critical issues between the two nations that can only be dealt with at an official level. From Tehran's perspective, there are the release of its frozen assets, the oil embargo and other commercial sanctions, and, eventually, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Washington. For the United States, the issues are Iran's nuclear program, its buildup of conventional military power and its continuing efforts to destabilize regimes friendly to the United States.

Failed U.S. policies in the Persian Gulf stretch back to the Nixon administration, and President Bill Clinton, if he continues to cling to a policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran, will carry on this sorry track record. But the time is right for him to break with the past and implement a new strategy that restores a power balance more favorable to America and its allies. Unless he works harder to oust Hussein and begins talking with Tehran, the decline in U.S. influence, and a concomitant increase in regional instability, will ensure that Washington and its friends will face even greater dangers in the Middle East than those that confront us today.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World