Iraq is pumping new fervor into its feud with Iran. And while its latest move against Iran may benefit the West by preventing an overall oil-price increase for the time being, it could also increase the risk of war-by-miscue.
Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein's formal revival Sept. 17 of a border-water dispute with Iran seemed part of his bid for a linchpin role in an emerging alliance with more moderate Arab neighbors.
The Saudis and Iraqis, enemies not too many years ago, found themselves on the same team against a hawkish Iran at a Sept. 15-17 OPEC pricing conference. The Iraqi-Iranian feud was seen as one roadblock to a pricing compromise whereby the Saudis would hike their prices and cut production in return for long-term OPEC restraint.
The slack oil market, threatening an already battered Iranian economy with further damage, could yet force Tehran to swallow its revolutionary zeal and make a deal with OPEC moderates. Further OPEC discussions are planned in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi-Iranian escalation could almost inadvertently jolt an already unstable Middle East. This, Mideast diplomats have long argued, is the principal danger in the escalating Iraqi-Iranian dispute.
Being enemies, for Iraq and Iran, is nothing new. In the early 1970s Iraq and the former Shah grappled for regional muscle and border territory. Each regime, Mideast experts are quick to point out, was in sufficiently firm control at home to tiptoe to the very brink of major conflict.
And in 1975, with Iran backing an escalating rebellion among Kurds in Iraq's northern hill country, each regime was in tight enough control to manage one of history's most acrobatic rapprochements.
Iraq in effect ceded claims to a frontier channel bed and, shortly afterward, to three islets near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, gateway to Gulf oil-shipping lanes. Iran, in return, coolly pulled the rug from beneath its Kurdish "allies" inside Iraq.
Now, Iraq's Saddam Hussein has torn up the 1975 pact. Specifically, he was quoted Sept. 17 as claiming the frontier Shatt al Arab waterway as "Iraqi and Arab." The earlier accord split the waterway down the middle. The Iraqis had already revived claims to the three Gulf islands.
Practically, the latest Iraqi statement doesn't change much.
In what many experts saw as an inevitable outgrowth of Islamic revolution in Iran, Iraq and the new Tehran regime began bickering as soon as the Shah fell.
The Iranians used as leverage a majority Shiite Muslim population inside Iraq , never very fond of a Hussein regime that is nominally loyal to the rival Sunnite strain of Islam, and in fact a hard-fisted secular dictatorship.Mounting violence was reported by Baghdad diplomats.
The Iraqis, meanwhile, are said to have stirred unrest among ethnic Arabs in Iran while reviving border disputes. Border incidents have reportedly been heating up.
Neither side is seen as wanting all-out war. For each, the feud seems instead a tool to stir internal fervor. But neither government seems as firmly in control as during the pre-1975 saber rattling. "That," a British Middle East expert commented recently, "is the longer-term peril."