As the target date approaches for completing the Camp David blueprint on Palestinian autonomy, the whole sweep of the Middle East from Turkey to Afghanistan is once again on the boil.
The reason is that the ferment started by President Sadat's 1977 peace initiative, further stirred by Ayatollah Khomeini's 1979 revolution, and set vigorously bubbling by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has put the whole area up for grabs.
Now everybody wants to get into the act -- the superpowers, the governments of the region, and even nonsovereign bodies such as the PLO, the Shia Muslims in Iraq, the Kurds in Iran, and the hard-line Maronite Christians in Lebanon.
So, as President Sadat talks with President Carter in the White House, muscles are flexed and claims are made by virtually every party to every dispute in the whole troubled are from the Bosporus to the Hindu Kush.
* In the superpower struggle, both the United States and the Soviet Union are hastily shoring up their positions.
Faced with impasse on the hostage crisis, President Carter has announced new sanctions against Iran. To head off breakdown of the Camp David process, he has invited Mr. Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Washington.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev assails both moves. Confronted with his own problems in Afghanistan, he has put the Soviet position there on a "legal" footing through a new treaty and is prodding his client government in Kabul toward representation at the forthcoming meeting of Islamic powers in Pakistan.
* In the struggle for control of the Gulf, oil rich and potentially an access route to warm water for the USSR, Iraq and Iran are escalating their chronic rivalry. There is violence on their common border, and Iraq -- hoping to exploit the revolutionary turmoil in Iran -- is laying claim to three Arab islets at the entrance to the Gulf that the ousted Shah seized when the British withdrew in 1971.
From beyond the geographical perimeter of the Gulf, the US and the USSR eye from afar the known oil reserves on both sides of the area. The US and its industrial allies in Europe and Asia remain dependent on that oil -- and consequently are concerned about the continued stability of the royal house in Saudi Arabia, the biggest oil producer of all the Gulf states.
The USSR, with its forces in Afghanistan now only 300 miles from the Gulf, recognizes the increased geopolitical value of this shadow to the oil flow westward. Moscow also may be increasingly tempted by Gulf oil as an alternative source of supply for the USSR itself, should the latter cease to be self-sufficient in oil production.
* In the struggle to spearhead the revolutionary forces in the area, both political and religious, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has first refused to meet head-on the student Islamic militants holding the 50 American hostages.
Moreover, he now has hailed the latest US countermeasures as the best thing that President Carter has done since the ousting of the Shah -- since he feels the move clearly delineates the implacable line of hostility between the "satanic" US and the "pure" revolutionary forces of the world's oppressed.
* In the struggle to be seen as true spokesman or representative of Islam, now resurgent throughout the world, the fundamentalist Shia Ayatollah Khomeini is challenged by the moderate Sunni President Anwar Sadat of Egypt humanely offering asylum to a fellow Muslim, the ousted Shah.
The Ayatollah also is challenged by the equally Sunni but more cynically political iraq President Saddam Hussein, who is expelling Shia Iranians from the vicinity of the Shia holy places in Iraq.
* In the struggle for control of the other Soviet access route to warm water in South-west Asia -- through the Turkish-held narrows of the Bosporus -- the US and the USSR watch as Turkish Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel battles to end violence between extremes of the left and right and to salvage his country's economy. A new crisis threatens in Turkey with doubt over succession to the presidency of the republic, now that President Koruturk's constitutional term has expired.
* In the struggle for Palestine, Israeli Prime Minister Begin has dug his heels in deeper than ever on Israel's sovereign right to all the West Bank, determined to resist US pressure for compromise. Mr. Sadat is in Washington to encourage that pressure. And Palestinians have carried out a guerrilla raid on an Israeli kibbutz to try to wreck the whole negotiating process.
Palestinian terrorism hurts Mr. Sadat and helps Mr. Begin politically -- although individual Israelis are the ones who suffer physically. It boosts Mr. Begin's claim that Israel needs the maximum territorial security, which he argues permanent Israeli control of the West Bank would afford.
And if Mr. Begin now carries out a tough retaliatory raid on Palestinian bases, Mr. Sadat's position (in the eyes of other Arabs) as collaborating with the enemy will be reinforced. Yet Mr. Sadat may well be saved by the proven inability of those Arab governments committed to his undoing to cooperate effectively to achieve it.
To the west, Libyan leader Muammar alQaddafi -- a self-appointed Muslim revolutionary of revolutionaries -- is too much off in the clouds and too discredited by his recent involvement in an attempt to overthrow the government of Tunisia.He is simultaneously pursuing a campaign against Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat, which hardly makes for a united front against Mr. Sadat in behalf of the Palestinians.
To the northeast, Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad has his hands full with his entrapment in Lebanon. He also is harassed by a persistent campaign against him by Sunni fundamentalists. President Assad is a member of the minority Alawites (associated with Shia Islam) whose dominant role in Syria is resented by the Sunni majority.
Further east, Iraqi President Saddam is still consolidating his power, seized less than a year ago. He has a hostile Iran on his eastern frontier. And within Iraq, there is the chronic threat of dissidence from Kurds and the Shia Arabs.
These are pluses for Mr. Sadat. A minus is the fact that it is a presidential election year in the US. Most Arabs believe that Israel sees these quadrennial exercises to open to exploitation by Israel, because of the Israel factor in US domestic politics.
Hence, Arabs say, Mr. Begin's intransigence on the West Bank and his insistence on implanting new Israeli settlements in what he calls Judea and Samaria.
To counter this, Mr. Sadat -- doubtless aware of the restrictions on an incumbent US president seeking re-election -- has been building up all the credit he can with Mr. Carter and the American public. He has meticulously fulfilled the letter of the Camp David accords, even when frustrated by some of Mr. Begin's moves. He has emerged as the one leader willing to deal humanely with the ailing and fugitive Shah.
This will all help him when he turns to Mr. Carter to persuade Mr. Begin to be more forthcoming. But Mr. Sadat is an astute enough politician to know that what Mr. Carter can do before the election in november is minimal.