Iran and Iraq are going at each other hammer and tons -- with verbal abuse from their respective radios and intermittent bullets along their common border.
The reason? Each stands in the way of the other's main aim; and each holds hostages against the other.
The effect? The already tense region right under Soviet Central Asia, strategically vital and bristling with oil derricks, is given an added twist of instability.
Iran's main aim, under the religious guardianship of Ayatollah Khomeini, is to consolidate the revolution of the post-Shah era. The Ayatollah is determined to hold the country together under a central authority mainly influenced by the traditional Shia Islam of the Persians.
Iraq's main aim, under the ruthless and purposeful leadership of President Saddam Hussein, is to acquire the dominant role in the Gulf now that Iranian military power has virtually collapsed. The Iraqi President is determined to assume the leadership of the Arab world that was once Egypt's.
The hostages each holds against the other are ethnic or religious communities within one country who are vulnerable to subversion or sedition from the other.
In Iran, the "hostages" are the Kurds and the Arabs. Both are non-Persian ethnic communities which the Persian central government in Tehran has tried to keep rigorously under control. But both live on or near the border with Iraq, and the Iraqis have sought to exploit their talent disaffection with Persian central power.
In Iraq, the "hostages" are the country's Shia Arabs. They constitute perhaps more than half of Iraq's total population. Yet, ever since Iraq was established as an independent state after World War I astride those great rivers of history, the Tigris and the Euphrates, political power has been the monopoly of Iraq's Sunni Muslims. President Saddam is a Sunni and has not hesitated to crack down on the Shia community. Hence Iran's propaganda seeks to exploit their grievances against the ruling Iraqi Sunnis.
The ferocity, of the Iran-Iraq encounter is sharpened both by a centuries-old legacy of history and by personal animosity between the two chief protagonists: Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, patriarchal and zealous in his religious mysticism, and President Saddam in Iraq, relatively youthful, mustached not bearded, secular and businesslike.
As for history, today's Iraqis and Iranians face each other across one of the world's great cultural divides going back over a millenium: that between Arabs and Persians. The collision between the two was settled in favor of the Arabs at the battle of Qadisiyah back in AD 637. President Saddam has publicly accused Ayatollah Khomeini of trying to reverse that 13-centuries-old decision with Iran's current campaign against Iraq.
Mr. Saddam has recognized hsi vulnerability through his potentially disaffected Shia community, in whose midst Ayatollah Khomeini lived (at the holy site of Najaf) for more than a decade during his long exile from Iran.
Earlier this year, as many as 35,000 Iraqi Shia Muslims -- many believed of Persian ethnic origin -- were forcibly expelled from the country and sent across the border into Iran. An Iraqi Shia leader, Imam Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, disappeared mysteriously and is thought to have been killed.
But MR. Saddam is equally aware of Iraq's potential strength. Iraq is thought now to have bigger oil reserves than Iran and is certainly exporting more each day than the latv ter country is. Its rivers offer promise for its agriculture. And although bound to the Soviet Union by a 1972 treaty of friendship and cooperation, Mr. Saddam has been giving his communists at home a tough time and putting some distance between himself and Moscow. Yet to preserve his nonaligned role, he still can be publicly rude to the United States.
Indeed, in his efforts to overwhelm Ayatollah Khomeini with obloguy, he accuses the latter of being hand in glove with the United States CIA and Israel. Paradoxically, the Ayatollah hurls the same accusation against Mr. Saddam.