Iran Sticks Up for Iran

September 14, 1990

Iran is using the crisis over Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to end its own isolation and strengthen its own position. A country with so many self-induced problems could hardly be expected to act otherwise. Iran is not on Iraq's side, or against Iraq, but for itself.

First Iraq sought peace with Iran, accepting Iran's terms for the end of their eight-year war, in order to release Iraqi troops to face U.S. and Saudi forces to the south. That was welcome to Iran, allowing it to end its own isolation, retrieve prisoners-of-war and win the dictator Saddam Hussein's recognition of the border, including Iranian sovereignty over the whole Shatt-al-Arab waterway. Iraqi strongman Hussein paid a high price -- his pretext for starting war with Iran in the first place -- to free-up his troops.

Matters have now led to diplomatic recognition. Of course those two countries should recognize each other. But it comes at a time when Iraq, because of militaristic aggression, faces the kind of ostracism that Iran, for its unrelieved Islamic revolution, formerly did. Mutual recognition dilutes the isolation of both countries. Iraq's Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz visited Tehran, seeking a trade route around embargo.

Meanwhile, Iran has said it complies with United Nations sanctions against Iraq, and calls for an end to the occupation of Kuwait. That is trying to be a good citizen of the world and to gain eligibility for Western credits. But Iran is also thinking out loud about sending food and medicine to Iraq, perhaps for oil. Food and medicine -- not oil -- are exempted from United Nations sanctions. Humanitarian shipments are urged by the countries with large numbers of nationals as hostages in Iraq and Kuwait. Yet substantial trade across that long border between Iraq and Iran would be alarming because it could not be monitored for contraband.

Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani is identified with the policy of adhering to world obligations. Iran's spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calls for holy war to push the Americans out of the Persian Gulf. American policy-makers have come to grief before when trying to play Iran's "moderates" against its "extremists." Until evidence to the contrary is produced, the president and the spiritual leader should be seen as upholding different sides of the same policy, not as rivals about to tear their regime apart.

Their policy is to use the crisis to advance Iran's interests as they jointly see those interests to be. This is not consoling to the United States. But at least it can be understood on its own terms.

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