Saddam Hussein's surprise offer to make peace with arch enemy Iran may ease Iraq's military situation and gain it a trickle of added food supplies, Middle East experts said yesterday.
But Saddam is unlikely to achieve his most crucial need: an outlet through Iran for Iraqi oil, the major source of cash he needs to buy food from traders around the world who would be willing -- for a price -- to break the United Nations embargo.
Nor will Hussein be able to replenish Iraq's supply of arms and ammunition, even if Iran cooperates in punching a hole in the embargo.
"I don't see how it can effect the oil embargo or the arms embargo," said Richard Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East during much of the Reagan presidency. Murphy now is with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"Food is another question," Murphy said. "Smuggling is historic on that frontier."
But other experts said Iraq is unlikely to get enough food through Iraq, even if it opens its borders, as it would have received through normal channels.
Analysts here and in the Middle East believe that Saddam clearly had the embargo in mind when he offered Wednesday to accept almost all of Iran's demands to end the eight-year war that crippled the economies of both oil-rich Persian Gulf powers and took more than 1 million lives.
"I can't imagine that Saddam Hussein would reach an agreement with Iran without asking for something in return -- and official routes across the country to break the blockade is that something," said Robert W. Tucker, an expert on the Persian Gulf who recently retired as a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Shaul Bakhash, an author and professor who specializes on Iranian affairs at George Mason University agreed. "Personally, that's why I think that one of Saddam's intentions is to secure Iran's agreement for this kind of transshipment," he said.
But in a part of the world where the bizarre defines the prevailing mentality and extensive bargaining precedes any deal, Saddam did something unprecedented: He agreed to almost all of Iran's terms for ending the war without signaling that he wanted anything in return.
While Iranians yesterday celebrated Iraq's announcement that it would release Iranian prisoners and give up claims to disputed territory, Iranian officials gave no indication that they would take up Husein's invitation to join a "holy war" against the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf.
Nonetheless, the more than 700-mile-long border between Iraq and Iran has been smugglers' territory for quite a while, and with troops gone from the porous frontier, experts believe the smugglers will begin plying their trade again.
"It's obvious that this opens up the prospect of a leak in the blockade," Tucker said.
"Knowing the Middle East and knowing what good traders they are, for a price a lot of things can get over borders," added Michael Hudson, a Middle East expert at Georgetown University.
George Mason University's Bakhash added that it will be easy to find merchants in Iran who would be willing to buy extra rice, wheat and other foodstuff, all likely to be in short supply in Iraq within months, and transship it across the border -- legally or illegally.
Iran has no surplus food of its own to ship to Iraq. And experts noted that large extra shipments of bulk commodities to Iran, either overland through Turkey or the Soviet Union or by sea via the Persian Gulf, will be noticed very quickly, allowing the United States and its allies to shut off the flow of excess food, analysts said. Both Turkey and the Soviet Union have agreed to cooperate with the U.N. embargo.
Even if Iran opens its borders to help Iraq beat the blockade, Saddam has the problem of raising the money to buy the food his country needs. Iraq owes about $80 billion to the rest of the world, its foreign accounts are frozen, and its supply of cash and gold is largely limited to an estimated $2 billion that Iraq looted from banks in Kuwait.
During the war with Iran, Saddam was able to get money from oil-rich Gulf neighbors such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia -- now positioned against him -- which pumped extra oil and gave the proceeds to Iraq.
Iran, though, has no excess capacity to sell on behalf of Iraq -- even if it wanted to help its former enemy that much.