London — US spare parts in return for Iran's US hostages? President Carter's televised pledge to "work toward resumption of normal commerce with Iran" in return for the release of the 52 American hostages has pricked concern among the extensive community of Middle East watchers and diplomats here.
The reason: "Commerce" includes more than $370 million worth of spare parts and munitions for the beleaguered Iranian Military machine.
Washington sources have confirmed that this backlog of material has been paid for by the Iranians, received from contractors, stockpiled by the US Department of Defense, and now awaits only top-level clearance to be released.
The resumption of such trade undoubtedly would provoke a critical response among the Gulf states, say some analysts.Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf states publicly support Iraq in its five- week-old war with Iran. They might well claim that such an action tilted the supposed neutrality of the United States in favor of Iran.
But the real reason for a critical response, say diplomats here, lies deeper. Support for Iraq in the Gulf is not wholehearted. "Pan- Arabism dictates that they have to line up publicly with the Iraqis," one European diplomat told the Monitor. But behind the formalities, these countries are quite content with the present stalemate on the battlefield.
"The best result for them is if the two major powers in the area [Iran and Iraq] are both left licking their wounds, rather than troublemaking with their neighbors," said the editor of an Arab newspaper here.
"They would be concerned if Iraq started to get into Iran -- they don't want see Iraq as the big power in the Gulf," he added.
It is this stalemate that the resumption of US trade with Iran could threaten. Also at risk is the cautiously rising authority of Saudi Arabia in the region.
Given what one diplomat calls "the natural mechamism out there" -- the traditional three-way balance of power among Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia -- the other Arab countries are looking increasingly to the Saudis for leadership as the two northern neighbors entangle themselves in war.
It was the Saudis who at the end of September rebuffed Iraqi plans to move planes and troops southward into the Gulf states for what could have been an attack into Iran across the strategic Strait of Hormuz.
Shortly thereafter, the Saudis asked for and received four radar surveillance planes from a grateful United States, planes that now are used to monitor air movements in the region. Their presence has reinforced the special US relationship with the Saudis, according to analysts here -- a relationship that Washington will be loath to relinquish.
But as Lawrence Freedman of the Royal Institute for International Affairs observes, "There is agreement in both Europe and Washington that Iran is more important than Iraq."
Both President Carter and US Secretary of State Edmund Muskie have been at pains to spell out the need for what Mr. Carter calls a "strong and united Iran."
The reason: Fear of Soviet encroachment. Iran, a centripetal federation of independent- minded Persians, Kurds, and Arabs, could yield to what Mr. Muskie described as "dismemberment" -- with the Soviets sweeping some of the members into their control.
Mideast experts here note that the case in Iraq is very different. There, a coup could perhaps bring down President Saddam Hussein, but whoever came to power presumably would take over the nation intact. And since the communists have fallen from favor in Iraq and largely been expelled, a change of government there would probably not ripen Iraq for Soviet picking.
All these calculations figure in the spareparts-for-hostages speculations.
Defense analysts note than even if already purchased spare parts were released, the United States would face great difficulties delivering them.
Others note that Iran has coped better than expected with maintenance of sophisticated equipment. They suspect that the know-how to use it did not disappear when American advisers withdrew after the Shah's downfall.