In the Iraq-Iran war lasts long enough, the administration may be increasingly tempted to abandon strict neutrality and help Iran keep its American military equipment operational by providing desperately needed spare parts. Such a temptation should be rigorously resisted if the United States is to restain any vestige of an overall Middle Eastern policy.
On the surface, the arguments for such a shift in position may seem plausible. Since the Iraqis are procuring spare parts for their Soviet-made equipment, should we not redress the balance by giving the Iranians an equivalent chance? In spite of the blandishments of the Moscow-orchestrated Tudeh Party, the ayatollah still makes anti-Russian noises; and, besides, an offer of spare parts might be useful in resolving the hostage issue. So, shouldn't we help the Iranians win?
In relation to an overall policy toward the Middle East, the answer is clearly no. Though Arab countries constantly quarrel among themselves, they tend to unite against common enemies. Thus they cannot be considered solely as discrete national entities, but must also be viewed in the larger context of Arab politics. By assisting Iran we would be ignoring the environmental facts of the area to the jeopardy of Western interests, for we would be taking the Persian side against an Arab nation.
The players in the Middle Eastern political game are singularly responsive to the cues of history, and enmity between Arabs and Persians is a thousand years old. Since a succession of Persian dynasties occupied Iraq and meddled in what is now the Arab world, atavistic hatreds still survive to fester just below the surface. In the current struggle, Arab governments -- whether moderate or radical -- will automatically side with Iraq not only as a conditioned reflex but also because they resent Khomeini's mischievous efforts to subvert and arouse their Shiite populations. So let us take on no new disabilities. Our political status in the area is already prejudiced by our identification as the champion of Israel, which most Arab states regard as their enemy. And the administration has further damaged our relations with Iraq by its recent refusal -- under election-year congressional pressure -- to sell planes for the Iraqi airline. If we should now send supplies to help the Persians fight the Arabs, we would make our Middle Eastern position untenable.
Admittedly the Carter administration faces anything but easy choices. Though by furnishing spare parts to Iran's soldiers and air force we might gain a short-term bargaining advantage with the ayatollah, that would, in the context of our larger interests, be disastrous. It would tend to extend the war, increase our involvement and associate us with a widely hated regime that is almost certainly on the way out.
Perhaps we need not rigidly foreclose all shipments to the Iranians. With slight political cost we could probably release those spare parts they have already purchased and that are in storage in America. But such a potpourri of bits and pieces would help only marginally to keep Iran's badly maintained American-made equipment operational.
Meanwhile, we should continue to communicate as best we can with both sides -- though we have diplomatic relations with neither -- while resolutely maintaining our neutrality. The current quarrel is not ours, and we should do everything possible to avoid becoming involved in it. At the same time, its implications are writ too large to be ignored: our vital oil supplies are frighteningly fragile -- vulnerable at any moment to interruption as a result of political or military disturbances. So far the current fighting is costing the world some two million barrels of oil a day, and no one can tell how long the fighting will continue or how much long-term damage may be done to production facilities. Instead of continuing to fritter and temporize, as we have done for the past seven years, we should take those energy measures worthy of a great people not afraid to face reality. How many warnings do we need?
As we watch and wait, we should do all that is possible to stop the fighting, though recognizing that there is little we can do by ourselves. As peace-makers, the Soviets are far better positioned, since they not only have functioning relations with the Iraqis as their principal military supplier, but, through the Tudeh Party, have built up reservoirs of strength in Iran. Yet for the Soviets to assume the key role as mediator might well give them the permanent position of influence in the Middle East that American policy has long sought to prevent. There is a warning in past events. By settling a clash between India and Pakistan though the Tashkent mediation of 1966, Moscow forget a relationship with India it has since exploited to our disadvantage.
Though the spectacular ineptitude of the Khomeini government must ultimately bring about its fall, no one knows when or what will then emerge. Will the Iranian nation unravel as one ethnic area after another movies toward autonomy or independence? Will the current fighting give new confidence, unity and prestige to Iran's distraught and demoralized army, while discrediting the nation's Islamic leadership, thus shifting power to moderate or right-wing military leaders? Or will the Soviets stage-manage a left-wing coup as the present regime is weakened by the war and its own incompetence?
Not only is this a dark and dangerous time -- certainly no moment for impetuous moves or short-term fixes -- but it calls for a concerting of thought and action. Since the Western European countries and Japan depend even more than we on Middle Eastern oil, any initiative should represent a collective effort. Only by acting together can we finesse the disadvantages of a purely American initiative in that pathologically sensitive part of the world, while avoiding new and unsupportable strains on an already badly weakened Western alliance.