The letter, signed by Iranian President Hojatoleslam Ali Khamenei and delivered to United Nations Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, caught the world off guard. Last week, Iran announced that it was willing to accept the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 598, which calls for an end to the eight-year-old Persian Gulf war between Iran and neighboring Iraq that has claimed more than one million lives. Iran’s initiative was a dramatic about-face for the warweary nation. While Iraq had shown willingness to accept the UN resolution when it was drafted last July, Iran had pledged to fight to the death against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime. “The acceptance of this issue is more deadly to me than poison,”
Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said in a statement on his country’s decision,
“but I am happy to submit to God’s will and drank this drink for his satisfaction.” Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, said that he wept while listening to the statement, broadcast on Tehran radio.
UN officials moved quickly to take advantage of Iran’s change of heart, dispatching a special team to the region to work out the terms of a truce. Said Pérez de Cuéllar: “If I am lucky, I may have a ceasefire within a week to 10 days.” But later events undermined hopes of a quick end to the brutal war. As Iran and Iraq bickered over the terms of the ceasefire, Tehran reported that Iraqi forces had launched a massive offensive in the south and broadcast repeated appeals from the General Command for Iranians to defend their homeland. “It is the duty of every Iranian to go to the defence of the honor of the nation,” the radio said. In response, Iraq denied that it had ambitions on Iranian territory. But experts questioned the sincerity of both sides. They saw Iraq as exploiting its military superiority in advance of peace talks. As for Iran, although many welcomed its acceptance of the UN resolution, arguing that it signalled the ascendancy of
government moderates over Islamic hard-liners, others claimed that Tehran might simply be buying time to regain its strength.
Still, U.S. officials welcomed the move as a “major breakthrough” in the war, which started in 1980 when Iraqi troops invaded Iran in an attempt to seize the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf. They added that it could be a sign of Iran’s new
moderation, demonstrated by its recent overtures to the United States for improved diplomatic relations and its relatively low-key reaction to the downing of an Iranian Airbus—resulting in the deaths of all 290 passengers on board— by the USS Vincennes on July 3.
Last week, the change in posture was evident on other fronts as well. Shortly after the Iranian letter was delivered to the UN, Canada announced that it would re-establish full diplomatic relations with Iran, broken off in 1980 after Canadian diplomats helped six Americans escape from Iran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy.
Some U.S. officials, among them White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, also indicated that an end to the hostilities could lead Washington to withdraw some of its naval forces from the Gulf. The U.S navy, which since last July has maintained a fleet
of warships in the Gulf to protect American-flagged tankers, has inflicted heavy losses on Iranian gunboats during numerous skirmishes.
Still, Iraq reacted to the Iranian initiative with skepticism. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz called the Iranian move “deceptive” and added, “The logical position is that the war is still going on.” Iraqi forces— fresh from recent gains that saw them recapture almost all of the territory lost to Iran during the course of the war— bombed Iranian territory, attacking an unfinished nuclear power plant, factories and other targets. For his part,
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati said in a letter to Pérez de Cuéllar that Iraq’s aggression at a time when Iran was willing to negotiate a ceasefire clearly illustrated “the warmongering nature” of Hussein’s regime.
The Iraqis were not alone in expressing doubts about whether Iran truly wants to end the war. One diplomatic observer in Washington, who called the Iranian letter a “tactical move,” said: “The Iranians want to give public opinion a chance to solve the problem. They hope to achieve their goals at the negotiating table while at the same time preparing for a new round of battle.” Added Christine Helms, a Washington-based analyst on Iranian affairs: “There is more to this than meets the eye, and, over the coming weeks and months, we will find out what it is.” And, she asked, “Is this just a delaying tactic while the Irani-
ans re-arm, reduce their isolation and prepare for the death of Khomeini?” Khomeini’s explanation of the decision, in a statement broadcast on Tehran radio last week, was clearly double-edged. “Our aim is not a new tactic to continue the war,” he said. But “we should be prepared for jihad [holy war] to deflect possible aggression by the enemy. Our nation should not consider the matter finished.” And Khomeini, speaking nearly one year after Saudi Arabian police killed 402 people during a riot by Iranian pilgrims in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, showed few signs of willingness to give up the Islamic struggle. “God willing, we will empty our hearts’ anguish at the appropriate time by taking revenge on al-Saud [the Saudi royal family] and America,” he declared. “We intend to dry up the roots of Zionism, capitalism and communism in the world.” Khomeini’s threat had special significance for Israel. Some Israeli experts expressed concern that an end to the war would allow Iran to devote more resources to helping pro-Iranian, anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon—particularly the Shiite Hizbollah, or Party of God, militia. “We may be the target via Lebanon,” said Joseph Alpher, deputy director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The Iranians invested $120 million in Hizbollah in the past year. Their motivation will not decrease, and their ability will grow if they are no longer bogged down in the Gulf.”
Iraq—also an implacable foe of the Jewish state—could pose another threat to Israel. An end to the Gulf war would leave one million battlehardened Iraqi troops across the Israe-
li-Arab divide. “We have always said that the most important thing about the end of the Iran-Iraq war is the way it ends,” said retired Brig.-Gen. Aharon Levran. “It seems that the war is ending with an Iraqi sense of victory—and this is bad for Israel.”
But at week’s end, there were few
signs that the war was coming to an end. Baghdad issued a communiqué claiming that its troops had recaptured 35 mountains in northeastern Iraq during “heroic battles” against Iranian forces. For their part, the Iranians accused Iraq of air, land and gas attacks against Iranian territory. Tehran said that the Iraqis used chemical
bombs against two Iranian villages and occupied three towns in the western part of the country—and claimed to have killed or wounded 5,000 Iraqi troops in fighting along the border.
At the same time, some experts said that the Iraqi show of strength was a clear indication that Hussein believes he now has the upper hand in the war— and would adopt a hard line in any peace negotiations. Said James Bill, a Middle East expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia: “Iraq does not seem to be in the mood to bargain.” Indeed, the two sides continued to argue over the terms of ceasefire talks, although they agreed to send their foreign ministers to New York City for “intensive discussions” with Pérez de Cuellar on implementing the peace plan. Earlier, Iran had rejected a proposal from Hussein for direct peace talks, insisting on negotiations through the UN. Hussein claimed then that the rejection suggested Tehran was not sincere in its wish for peace.
For his part, Lt.-Gen. Martin Vadset of Norway, the leader of the UN negotiating team, said that he was going to the troubled region “with the best of hopes.” He added: “I think that the UN can do a job and I hope will be allowed to do so. I am quite sure we will have rewarding discussions.” But as the negotiators prepared at week’s end to leave for Tehran, with plans to go to Baghdad later, the continuing clashes between the warring neighbors created an ominous, bloody background for the beginning of peace negotiations.
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