Just eight days after Iran’s surprise announcement that it was willing to accept United Nations peacemaking terms, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati met with UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar in New York City to start negotiating a ceasefire in the eight-year-old Persian Gulf war with Iraq. Then, on July 27, Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz held separate meetings with the secretary general. Despite Iran’s refusal to hold face-to-face talks with Iraq until after a ceasefire is in place, both sides seemed to be intent on achieving a truce in a war that has claimed more than one million lives and has driven both countries close to economic ruin. After a series of preliminary meetings with each of the foreign ministers, Pérez de Cuéllar said, “I think that things are moving, and moving in the right direction.”
Despite that optimistic assessment, violent encounters broke out on the Persian Gulf war’s front lines. Each side claimed to have killed thousands of the enemy. Combatants appeared to be fighting for territory and prisoners in order to strengthen their bargaining positions in the ceasefire talks. Even as a seven-member UN team arrived in Tehran on July 26 to discuss ways of implementing the truce, the official Iranian news agency, IRNA, reported that Iraqi troops had launched a dawn offensive deep into Iran. Baghdad denied the report, claiming that its troops were pulling out of Iranian territory that they had occupied after a July 22 offensive.
But in a series of claims and counterclaims, Tehran maintained that its forces were battling both Iraqi troops and Iraq-based forces of the Iranian National Liberation Army (NLA) along Iran’s central war front. Said Paul Jabber of the Council on Foreign Relations, based in New York City: “The pace of negotiations for a final settlement will depend to some extent on what happens over the next week or two on the war front.” He added, “A lot depends on where the lines are drawn at the ceasefire and who is in control of border areas when the ceasefire comes into effect.” And UN Security Council president Paulo Nogueiro-Batista said that continued fighting could “hamper the political climate that would be conducive to progress in the negotiations.”
Still, ever since both sides agreed to peace talks, the ferocity of the war— and its rhetoric—has intensified. Calling for stiff resistance against invaders from Iraq, Tehran radio invoked the most virulent denunciations in the Islamic lexicon. “The enemy soldier is not human,” a radio commentator declared. “He is bred from the dirty seed of bestiality. He is a germ of savagery, a hyena in human clothes, a dirty swine with poisoned blood in his veins.”
Officials in Baghdad denied that their forces were engaged in ground fighting inside Iran. But the Iraqis said that their air force flew several hundred missions each day against Iranian bases and radar installations, inflicting heavy losses. As well, Baghdad claimed to have repelled an Iranian attack near the Iraqi port city of Basra.
As battles raged, the rebel Iranian NLA injected yet another potential complication into the peace negotiations.
Members of the army of the dissident Mujahedeen Khalq movement, which seeks to overthrow the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, announced a major offensive and said that it had captured the town of Islamabads Gharb, nearly 100 km inside Iran. Both sides reported fierce fighting around the central battlefront town. The NLA drive appeared to be intended to secure a voice for the antiKhomeini group in any settlement between Iraq and Iran.
Strength at the bargaining table also seemed to be Iraq’s rationale for stepping up its war effort. In the past three months, Iraqi troops had recaptured strategically important territory, including the Fao Peninsula—occupied for more than two years by Iran—and the oil-rich Majnoon Islands on the southern war front.
UN Resolution 598, the basis for the peace talks, makes the repatriation of prisoners a top priority along with the withdrawal of opposing forces to internationally recognized borders. The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that Iran holds about 50,000 Iraqi prisoners. At the end of 1987, Iraq held only about 12,000 Iranians. But since April, Baghdad claims that it has captured about 30,000 more Iranian troops, including 12,000 since July 22.
For Iraqi President Saddam Hus-
sein, gains on the battlefield could also mean political survival at home. “The Iraqis now have the upper hand and they are exploiting it to the full in the current fighting,” said Jabber. “But more importantly, they want to ensure they are in the strongest possible bargaining position and able to get as much of the process that will follow the ceasefire nailed down before the shooting stops.” As well, because Iraq has incurred a war debt of about $50 billion and has expended hundreds of thousands of lives, said Shahrough Akhavi, an Iraq-Iran expert at the University of South Carolina, Hussein “has to win something or he will be in trouble at home.” Added Akhavi: “He
will not survive without gains.”
Iran’s apparent willingness to end the war raised some hopes for the release of 18 Western hostages held by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon. On July 25, President Ronald Reagan said that he was ready to discuss the issue with Tehran, adding, “If they’re ready and willing to talk, it is time.” But the next day, Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of Iran’s parliament and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, set a condition for Tehran’s help in the release of 10 U.S. hostages. He called for the release of Iranian 'assets—valued by Iran at $13 billion—that are frozen in U.S. bank accounts and storerooms.
Rafsanjani’s demands included the delivery of military equipment that had been ordered and paid for in the 1970s by then-Iranian ruler Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi but later withheld by Washington. Declared Rafsan-
jani: “If they really want to talk, let them take a nonhostile pose by releasing our assets. If so, we will use our influence in Lebanon and intercede to solve the problem of hostages.”
The response from the White House was a wary one. Aware of the 1986 Iran-contra scandal—in which the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran in a futile exchange for hostages—White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater flatly declared: “We will not negotiate or pay ransom for hostages. No deals.” And in New York City, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Vernon Walters laid down some conditions of his own. Walters said that the release of American hostages in Lebanon is a prerequisite for diplomatic relations with Iran. Washington severed relations in 1979 after Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and subsequently held 50 Americans hostage for 444 days. Reparations for damage to the embassy, Walters said, was also a condition of renewed ties.
In contrast, Britain last week announced that it may renew diplomatic relations with Iran in the near future. After a series of mutual diplomatic expulsions last year, Britain has not had any direct representation in Tehran. But with three British hostages—including Anglican church envoy Terry Waite—believed to be held by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon, British officials have proposed restoring better relations. Citing Iran’s acceptance of Resolution 598, a British Foreign Office spokesman said, “We are in a new phase of our relations and are considering whether or not that slot in Tehran should be filled, even if on a temporary basis.” Last June, following the release of three French hostages in Lebanon, France and Iran bridged an 11-month diplomatic breach. And on July 18, Canada announced that relations with Iran would be renewed by October after a rift of 8 Vi» years.
At week’s end, Pérez de Cuéllar continued separate talks with the Iranian and Iraqi foreign ministers in New York City. The secretary general reiterated his prediction that a ceasefire could be achieved in a matter of days. Tragically, that will be too late for the reported thousands who died on both sides in last week’s brutal combat.
-ANDREW BILSKI with WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington and correspondents’ reports
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.