Of all the complex issues confronting British and Middle Eastern policy-makers today, none is more intractable than that of Iran and Iraq, which are, together with Saudi Arabia, the three dominant powers in the Gulf, the site of two-thirds of the world's oil, and hence - barring geological or technological surprises - the great source of energy for the world economy over the next two decades.
That the oil has continued to flow over recent years is little short of a miracle, in the face of revolution in Iran (1979), war between Iran and Iraq (1980-88), Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (1990) and numerous less dramatic upheavals. Against this background, it is perhaps surprising, but not illogical, that both Iran and Iraq seem more than happy to discuss improving relations with the west, so long as due regard is given to their national and historic interests.
Indeed, such is their desire to have better relations with the west that they have been locked, for the past two decades, in a macabre attempt to outbid each other as the west's best friend in the region. In the 1980s, Iraq was the winner, claiming to be the bastion of Arab and western interests against the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran. During the Kuwait war, however, Iran tacitly but happily supported the coalition that expelled Iraq. As a result, matters righted themselves somewhat, with Iraq becoming subject to a policy of sanctions and intrusive military inspections, while Iran improved relations with western Europe and Japan. Yet both remained subject to US sanctions through the "dual containment" policy introduced by the Clinton administration.
It might have been appealing for Iran and Iraq to unite in the face of this challenge, but dual containment imposes a contrary logic. To gang up together has short-term advantages but, in the long run, is less attractive than its opposite - each blaming the other guy and trying, once again, to present itself as the more amenable interlocutor. This is what both Baghdad and Tehran have done, and with considerable success in Iraq: today Iranian oil is banned from US markets, while Iraq remains the sixth-largest supplier of US imports.
Dilip Hiro is a veteran observer of the Middle East and one of the few specialists who have good access in both states. In his new book, he traces the recent history of the two regimes, and examines their fitful relations and tangled dealings with the west. Iran and Iraq share a great deal of history, with strong religious, ethnic and cultural links. By the standards of the region, they are both well-endowed states - not only with the oil revenue on which they depend, but also with substantial educated populations, a measure of cultivable land and a strong cultural life. Both are multi- ethnic societies, with a large Kurdish population in Iraq and a variety of ethnic groups in Iran. Furthermore, both regimes are radical republics created by modern political upheavals, and for much of their history the two sides have intermingled and rubbed along reasonably well.
Yet their shared characteristics also account for their rivalry. Much is made, in nationalist rhetoric on both sides, of an ancient conflict going back to the Medes and the Persians. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein used to denounce Khomeini as a magus, a Zoroastrian priest, while Khomeini excoriated Saddam as a Yazid, the Sunni leader who killed the Prophet's grandson Hussein at the battle of Karbala in 680AD. Saddam made a book by his uncle, Three Things That God Should Not Have Created: Persians, Jews and flies (note the order), compulsory reading in all Iraqi secondary schools. In reality, modern nationalism, and the fomenting of hatred by the modern state, produced the current conflicts - and is likely to sustain them.
Hiro reminds us of the cruel and monstrous dictatorship that Saddam has created. He is critical of western sanctions, but he has no illusions about the level of terror in Iraq, or about Iraq's continued search for weapons of mass destruction with which to threaten both its own people and its neighbours. On the other hand, Iran - for all the political and social controls maintained by the clergy and their associates - allows a variety of views and political trends. Indeed, it is undergoing an unpredictable process of change, far removed from the fragmentation and paralysis of its Arab neighbour.
The issue of western relations with Iran and Iraq is under urgent discussion: the US is rethinking its policy towards both states; the Arab world is pressing for improved relations with Iraq; and Iran has reportedly opened discussions with the US. In Britain, much of what passes for public debate on these countries is misinformed, whether it is overly critical of Iran, indulgent of Iraq, or distorted by being too closely linked to separate issues such as Afghanistan or Palestine and Israel. The time is right for new thinking on Iran and Iraq. Hiro's study is as good a place to start as any.
Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics