At the core of the United States policy in the Middle East is the assumption that peace and harmony will reign in the region once the Arab-Israeli conflict has been resolved. This assumption is wrong. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the prime cause of the long-standing problems plaguing the Mideast.
Numerous rivalries, boundary disputes, and hostilities based on religious differences have kept the region in a constant state of instability and turmoil, to a point where local armed skirmishes have led to civil wars and to outright and widespread wars between countries. There are conflicts between Iraq and Iran, between Iraq and Kuwait, between North and South Yemen, between South Yemen and Oman, and between Syria and Lebanon.
In addition, there are ongoing confrontations and local wars by the official governments against minority groups: in Iraq, against the Kurds; in Egypt, against the Copts; in Lebanon, against the Druze; and in Iran, against the Bahai. Not to be overlooked is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the terrible loss of lives there.
These local and intra-state conflagrations baffle Western minds and are enigmas to the Western way of thinking. Efforts by Western powers to mediate these struggles have been fraught with failure; their insights, judgements and value systems run aground trying to understand attitudes totally alien to their systems of logic and historical perspectives.
LOGIC AND RATIONALITY DEFIED
The bitterest conflict is the war between Iran and Iraq, which began in September 1980 and which shows no signs of being resolved in the near future. The consequences for both countries show how border disputes can get out of hand, how they defy logic and rationality.
The hostilities between the two countries (dubbe##) the Persian Gulf war in the media and in political circles) have led to devastating results: more than 100,000 dead and wounded, thousands of homes destroyed, lives disrupted, and economies derailed. At stake is the border between Iran and Iraq and the area around the Shatt al-Arab, the major shipping lane through which the oil tankers pass on their trips to the West and Japan.
Conflicts about demarcation lines go back about 50 years. Iraq denied Iran control of the shipping lanes. Each country tried to support insurgents in the other. It was a smoldering conflict which finally seemed to have been resolved by an agreement signed in June 1975. But three years later the Shah was deposed and the Islamic revolution, led by the Aya-tollah Khomeini, created chaos in Iran.
Iraq’s ruler, Saddam Hussein, saw an opportunity to regain lost territory and influence. In September 1980 Iraq renounced the 1975 agreement. This was a prelude to a full-scale invasion of the 90 square miles from Qasr-i-Sheiria (in the north) to Badra and Mehran (in the south). At the same time, Iraq claimed unilateral control of the Shatt al-Arab.
The invasion was successful. Iraq took an oil-rich Iranian province and advanced into other areas without meeting serious Iranian opposition. But Khomeini’s Iran recovered from chaos and rebuilt its army. Iran has vowed to continue the war until it has overthrown the Iraqi government. Iraq has begun to use chemical warfare against Iran, in violation of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which Iraq agreed to adhere to in 1931.
THORNY QUESTIONS RAISED
The ease with which Iraq tore up the 1975 agreement raises some thorny questions. If agreements signed by Arab states with each other can be abrogated at will, what can Israel expect when it signs an accord with an Arab state? Will the peace treaty with Egypt withstand the test of time? Will future agreements and treaties last or will they be renounced as soon as the ink is dry?
Certainly, the abrogation of the Israel-Lebanon May 17 agreement yesterday by Lebanon under the relentless pressure of Syria bodes ill for future agreements between Israel and Arab states.
Agreements by Arab governments are about as constant as the wind-blown grains of sand in their desert kingdoms. For example, President Hafez Assad of Syria said he would recall his troops from Lebanon as soon as the Israelis said that they would evacuate their troops. Israel began its redeployment, but Syria refused to budge. It is now apparent that Assad has not the slightest intention of having his troops leave Lebanon quickly or easily.
IRAQ HAS SOUGHT TO DESTROY ISRAEL
As long as Iran and Iraq are locked in combat, they cannot take part in the “solution” of the Arab-Israeli conflict; they can only exacerbate the problem. Iraq has sought to destroy Israel ever since 1948. During Israel’s War of Independence, and again during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Iraqi forces were massed against Israel. At times, Iraqi forces were stationed in Jordan to support that country in its struggle against Israel.
Now, war with Iran has turned Iraq’s attention away from Israel. This has provided Israel with some military relief on its eastern border. As long as the Gulf war continues, there is one less threat for Israel. But the dialectic of the situation is that as long as the war continues, the instability and tensions in the region become aggravated and Israel’s security is further menaced.
STRANGE POLITICAL ALIGNMENTS
There was a rumor some time ago that Israel provided some spare parts and equipment to Iran, in part to help it defeat Iraq and thereby help to curtail its nuclear production activities, and in part to alleviate the hostage situation of Iranian Jews. Iran hotly denied such a deal. But true or not, the Gulf war has created some strange political alignments.
Iraq is supported by other Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others have loaned Iraq more than $25 billion of oil money on favorable terms. Iraq is further supported by Jordan which opened its port of Aqaba for the shipment of war material. There was a general declaration of support for Iraq issued at the Fez summit conference in September 1982. In addition, Iraq has the backing of the Soviet Union which is always eager to increase tensions. The Russians deliver military equipment and get, in turn, hard currency for this hardware.
On the other hand, Iran has the support of Syria and Libya. Syria closed the oil pipeline from Iraq which passed through its territory, thus making it difficult for Iraq to export its oil. The loss from the pipeline closure is estimated to amount to some $6 billion annually. A flow of weapons from Syria and Libya sustains the offensive capability of the Ayatollah’s army.
Iran also has friends in the West. Last year it became West Germany’s biggest Middle East trading partner, a position that traditionally has been held by Saudi Arabia. The importance of Iran’s trading position is not lost on Bonn. German government officials said yesterday that when selling arms to the Saudis, Bonn will have to take into consideration Iran’s opposition to the Gulf kingdom.
U.S. AND ISRAEL IN A QUANDRY
Israel and the United States are in a quandry. Any move on the part of Iran towards the south would pave the way for a spread of the Islamic revolution. Regimes in the Gulf states would be threatened by insurgency and face the same fate as the Shah’s regime. Terrorism, Iranian style, would plague the West and endanger whatever property and investments they now have in the Gulf countries.
Most ominous and threatening of all, Iran could decide to mine the Strait of Hormuz, thus creating havoc for the West. The oil tankers which pass through it could be destroyed, or at the very least be easy targets for attack. The flow of oil could be halted. Israel would feel the brunt of a victorious Iran; it could become the target of the fanatical fundamentalist Islamic wrath of Khomeini.
A war cannot be ruled out, and the U.S. could become embroiled in it. The stakes in the outcome would be very high indeed, for Iran, for Israel and for the U.S. and other Western powers. But no matter who would win, Israel would lose in the ensuing Middle East turmoil.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.