Two days into the U.S. crisis over Iraq, there were signs that concerns about Iran may have played a major part in the mysterious moves of Saddam Hussein.
One theory, offered by Philip Verleger, an analyst at Charles River Associates in Washington, is that the Iraqi leader may have ordered his troops north to keep the Iran-backed Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) from controlling the route for oil to be piped to Turkey under the United Nation's oil-for-food deal.''It's clearly one of his motives,'' said Mr. Verleger. ''Iran at some point might want to squeeze their exports.'' But Mr. Verleger cautions against pushing the theory too far to ask what would happen if Iran could turn the spigot on Iraqi oil.
Experts see the oil worry as only one of several motives in the struggle to fill the power vacuum in northern Iraq.
''Oil may be part of it, but it's way too narrow,'' said Richard Haass, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. Haass believes that Mr. Hussein's plan to move began when he saw Iran meddling with the PUK on his territory. But other factors also fell into place that made military action seem like the right strategic move.
Most notably, the Iraqi forces were invited in by their former foes, the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The recent rise to power of an Islamicist government in Ankara also made it unlikely that Turkey could be used again as a base for U.S. air strikes.
Mr. Hussein's operation plays well inside Iraq, despite the possible setback for oil-export plans. ''It's anti-Kurdish and anti-Iranian, but it's seen as pro-Iraqi,'' Mr. Haass said.
NORTH ATTRACTS DEFECTORS
Michael Eisenstadt, military fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the north has been a magnet for defectors, giving Mr. Hussein another reason to strike and seek control.
It is not clear that the Iraqi leader has lost much in the attempt, in spite of U.S. missile attacks. Mr. Eisenstadt said Mr. Hussein probably left his intelligence agents and secret police behind in the Kurdish town of Irbil after his troops withdrew.
It is not certain whether the oil-for-food deal is dead. U.N. inspector Rolf Ekeus said in a television interview Wednesday that any added delay in plans to sell $2 billion of oil over six months has only been caused by the inability to send monitors into Iraq during the hostilities. In any case, Mr. Verleger believes that Mr. Hussein doesn't care about the revenues because they would only be used for food and medicine, not power.
MIDEAST IS BENEFITING
Still, it is intriguing to wonder about the consequences if Iran were to gain control over Iraq's oil route. Any influence over Iraq's planned 730,000 barrels a day of exports could help Iran manipulate prices for the 2.5 million barrels a day that it sells. The Mideast crisis is already benefiting Iran through higher oil prices.
It is likely that any overt attempt by Tehran to control the oil through Kurdish proxies would cause Iraq and U.N. negotiators to shift routes for the oil-for-food deal. But that would take time, and any additional delay in Iraqi exports would only help Iran.
Mr. Eisenstadt said the United States needs to be careful about taking actions with unintended consequences that could favor Iran. The Clinton administration may have come close with an intervention that will help the PUK.
But for the time being, it appears that the U.S. missile strikes have sent the message that Washington will fill the power vacuum in the area, excluding both Iraq and Iran.