Beirut — A quiet yet important superpower political contest may be shaping up in the Gulf as jittery Arab oil states seek to head off further strikes on their tankers.
In the shorter term, any implications for the United States and the Soviet Union are being overshadowed by nuts-and-bolts moves among Arab oil states to hike their military preparedness for any further air attacks.
Most Arab political analysts here say more attacks are likely to occur anyway. This is as much because of Iraq, which wants continued world pressure for a palatable end to the war it started 44 months go, as because of Iran.
Only months ago, Iraq was in effect suing for peace at any price. But by hitting tankers near Iran's key oil terminals at Kharg Island, Baghdad has finally managed to do what Iran did early in the war - sharply reduce its foe's essential oil-export revenue. Thus, Iran's counter-strikes on Saudi and Kuwaiti tankers in recent days.
Published remarks by various Gulf officials suggest they feel the need of concerted, if discreet, outside support in their attempt to curb escalation of the war.
''Obviously, the US is seen as key in this respect even though the Saudis would like to keep any American role as low profile as is workable,'' remarked a veteran Arab political analyst here Monday.
(US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy held talks on the Gulf war with Saudi leaders in Riyadh Monday, Reuters reports.) The US Central Command, a rapid-response force for the region, has access to several military bases in the area.
More visibly, Gulf officials are seeking help from West Europe and Japan, major customers for Gulf oil. Japan, a key Iranian oil customer, received a visit Monday from the Kuwaiti and Iraqi foreign ministers.
The intensified world interest in the war cannot have been lost on Iraq. At an Arab League parley over the weekend, the Saudi foreign minister was quoted as saying Iraq's neighbors could no longer simply play ''spectators'' in a conflict fiercely affecting their own security. Until last week, the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors had been diverting billions in oil revenues to the Iraqi war effort but otherwise avoiding more direct involvement.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait reportedly shifted antiaircraft missiles closer to their Gulf coasts recently. And the Gulf Cooperation Council - grouping the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and four neighboring oil sheikhdoms - is drawing up a joint air defense plan that is due to be ready this week.
But the Arab Gulf states share another, longer-range concern: finding sustainable means of reining in the militant brand of Shiite Islam that rules in Iran.
''For this,'' noted the veteran commentator, ''the influence of outside powers, especially the superpowers, is essential.''
Thus analysts suggest a fresh jostling for superpower influence in the strategically important Gulf region is likely.
Both Washington and Moscow seem leery of direct involvement in the escalated conflict. Neither superpower seems likely to court head-on diplomatic confrontation, much less military. And as it happens, both powers' interests at present coincide with those of Iraq. The Gulf states, analysts suggest, are likely to ponder two main alternative areas in which superpower influence might be helpful.
The first would involve stepped-up support for Iraq's war effort - whether along the lines of recently increased Soviet arms supplies there or of recent US moves to help in Iraq's bid to build an oil-export pipeline through Jordan to compensate for the closing of an old conduit via Syria, which backs Iran in the war.
The other, more complex area for possible superpower action is Iran. Specifically, the Gulf states are said to believe that only the superpowers may in the long run manage to constrain Iran's penchant for exporting Islamic militancy. How, is unclear. Since the hostage crisis, the US has little visible communication, much less influence, with Iran's ruling mullahs.
US military options, beyond helping counter air strikes on tankers, would seem even sparser. There was more than mere rhetoric in an Iranian statement Monday that, should the Americans try playing ''adventurist games'' in the Gulf, they could risk ''a slap harder'' than US prestige took a few months back in Lebanon.
The Soviets, some analysts here argue, may be a bit better placed because the USSR directly borders Iran. ''Moscow's potential tools for pressuring Iran, even though Soviet-Iranian relations are presently almost as bad as US-Iranian ones, should not be underestimated,'' a Beirut foreign-affairs specialist said.
Among possibilities mentioned is to encourage unrest in Iran's northern provinces, notably Azerbaijan or Kurdistan.
The conservative Arab Gulf states are not believed to be thinking of tilting toward Moscow. But amid growing concern over Iran, the Soviets could at least incrementally help their longstanding bid for increased influence among such Arab regimes, some analysts say.