Storm in the Gulf

It is clear that the escalating conflict between Iraq and Iran is more than a feud over a critical waterway or territorial boundaries. It is part of a bold long-term bid on the part of Iraq, perhaps the most radical state in the Middle East, to replace Iran as the dominant power in the Gulf region and to take over leadership of the Arab world. Whether it succeeds or not, the West is in effect watching a gradual shift of power balances in the Mideast in the wake of the Camp David peace accords and the weakening of Iran as a result of the demise of the Pahlavi monarchy. Needless to say, it watches with deep concern -- and with hope that the conflict, with all its human tragedy, has limited short-term aims and will soon end.

Two points suggest themselves about the diplomatic urgency of bringing about a ceasefire as soon as possible. One is the seeming impotence of the United States to do anything because of its weakened position in the region. The other is the opportunity this may afford the Soviet Union to play a mediating role and thereby reassert its own influence in the Middle East.

Unfortunately for Washington, the continuing captivity of the hostages makes it difficult to take the lead in a peaceful resolution of the problem. The US has no influence in Iran. In fact the Iranians, ever suspicious of American interference, are blaming the US for colluding with Iraq in the armed attack. They are thus using the hostages as a scapegoat and, contrary to propaganda reports from Baghdad about their release, this could mean an even longer confinement for the Americans while the conflict with Iraq is sorted out. In this situation President Carter ought to be doing everything possible to assure Tehran that the US is no way involved in the dispute. He ought also to refrain from public comments, such as he made at a political rally about the possibility the fighting might induce Iran to return the hostages and shore up its ties with the US. Such public statements are of dubious value and may even be harmful in the tense circumstances.

The Soviet Union, for its part, watches, too, with n less concern that the fighting could flare into all-outwar. It has a strategic interest both in maintaining its strong ties with Iraq and gaining a firm toehold in neighboring Iran. It wants to alienate neither by siding with the other. Hence Middle East experts speculate that Moscw. if it is plays its diplomatic cards shrewdly, may await a judicious moment in the fighting and then weigh in as a mediator between the two. It would thereby get back into Iran's good graces and, as a responsible conciliator, help restore its frayed international image in the aftermath of the Afghan invasion. The precedent for such a scenario is the part the Russians played in ending hostilities between India and Pakistan in 1965.

One hopes, of course, that Iran and Iraq will settle their differences before lending themselves to such a Soviet ploy. The Iranians plainly are fearful of Soviet expansionism across their borders, and Iraq, to, although it has a treaty of friendship with Moscow, is uncomfortable with the Russians and has been moving toward a more nonaligned position.

To what extent the IRaqi shift promotes the interests of the West, however, is far from clear. Such Middle East hands as former US diplomat Joseph Sisco caution against assuming that Iraq is moving toward the West and serving anything but its own revolutionary interests. With the second highest reserves of oil in the Middle East, with economic technology from the West, with its emboldened use of military might, Iraq is in position not only to project its power in the Gulf area but, possibly, to spread the radical ideology of Baathist socialism.

N one knows just how far Iraq -- which is also a burgeoning nuclear power -- will go in pursuing its great-power aims. The uncertainties loom all the larger in view of the fact that Iraq is a staunch supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization and organized the Arab forces of opposition to the Camp David accords. It hardly needs saying that the United States and its allies ought to be thinking through a new strategy for the Middle East, one that goes beyond merely the cobbling together of a rapid deployment force. If the Iranian-Iraqi conflict says anything, it is that the present diplomatic drift is intolerable -- if not dangerous.

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