United Nations, N.Y. — Subtle and complicated negotiations are under way indirectly between Tehran and Baghdad aimed at reaching a peaceful settlement of the Iran-Iraq war, according to diplomats and experts.
''Both sides are testing the ground and tiptoeing in zigzags toward a peaceful settlement. Both sides are now hurting so badly that they must put an end to the war,'' says a Western official.
Nonetheless, both sides still fiercely cling to their guns and to their self-righteousness. In fact, a new Iranian offensive is seen as likely by experts here.
''But it may be the last one,'' an informed source says. ''If, as expected, it will fail like previous ones to bring Iraq to its knees, a peace process will begin to rapidly unfold,'' he adds.
The tiniest wedge has successfully been slid into the door by UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar. It comes in the form of a UN report regarding civilian damage caused during the war by Iranian and Iraqi armies. Iran, which had previously avoided all contact with the UN (an organization which it felt was controlled by ''the great Satan,'' meaning the United States), suggested that a UN fact-finding commission be dispatched to both countries.
Iraq promptly accepted the idea, though the Iraqis knew they would not fare well in the commission's report. ''When you knock out a neighbor's window, you expect to be eventually scolded for it,'' says a top Western Middle East expert.
The commission report has been issued, and although it passes no judgment, the facts that it presents shed unfavorable light on Iraq rather than on Iran. Damage caused by the Iraqis in Dezful in particular has been considerable.
The UN commission, led by Ghana's Brig. Timothy Dibuama, visited Iran from May 21 to 26 and Iraq from May 28 to 30.
Now Iraq has asked the Security Council to send another commission to both countries. Its task would be to examine the treatment of prisoners of war.
This commission's report would probably be harsher on Iran than on Iraq, according to several Gulf watchers.
Thus, morally and politically, both Iraq and Iran would have established the UN's impartiality and fairness. ''The Security Council could adopt a resolution that would get both sides off the hook. It could claim that initially Iraq was at fault for having started the war, but that after the 1981 cease-fire Iran was guilty for having continued the war after Iraq had withdrawn its troops from Iranian territory.
''Splitting the blame evenly between the two contestants would provide both (Iranian leader Ayatollah) Khomeini and (Iraqi President Saddam) Hussein with a fig leaf and allow them to settle their dispute perhaps not in triumph but neither in abject humiliation,'' a member of the Security Council says.
In recent months Iran has noticeably moved away from its rigid, extremist, isolated stance in world affairs. Its harsh repression of the communist Tudeh Party was a clear indication that it ''wanted to be in the pocket of neither superpower'' and that it now feels strong enough to ''reenter world politics as an independent agent,'' says a Western diplomat who monitors developments in Iran.
''The tone in Iran's official statements has mellowed,'' says the representative of a country that has maintained close relations with Iran.
Recently Iran dispatched several trade missions to West Europe in order to improve ties with West Germany, Scandinavia, and Italy. ''Obviously, some people in high places in Tehran are already thinking in postwar terms,'' the same source says.
Other diplomats remain cautious if not downright skeptical. ''With Iran, we have been at the watershed before. High-placed Iranian authorities might indeed be seeking a way out of the war, but Khomeini could abort their maneuver at the last minute,'' cautions a European diplomat.
The same source says, however - and other analysts here concur - that a sort of pre-negotiation between Iraq and Iran under the UN umbrella is at work and that both sides are signaling to each other their desire to ''stop the war but not at any price.''
''The process is extremely delicate and can move forward only slowly. Iran and Iraq are now dipping their toes in the UN waters to test the temperature. As they discover that they are not cold, they could sink their whole foot in and prepare to take the final plunge into the pool,'' an expert says.