How far will Iraq go? That is the main question now. For it is clear that ever since the border skirmishing between the Gulf's two most powerful states began early this year it has been Iraq that has been on the offensive, not Iran.
An escalation of that border skirmishing had long been expected. But the dimensions that the present conflict has assumed, with Iraqi land forces thrusting into the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, shows that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is ready to play for higher stakes than seemed likely last week when he abruptly abrogated the 1975 Iran-Iraq pact.
The algiers pact was a humiliation that Saddam Hussein has never forgotten. In essence, his acceptance then of shared sovereignty over the vital Shatt al Arab estuary was the price he had to pay for an end to Iranian support of a Kurdish rebellion in Iraq's mountainous north.
Today, however, the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini to power in Iran poses an ever greater threat for Iraq than the Shah and his one-time support of the Kurds.
Of all Arab regimes, the Iraqi Baathists have most to fear from the Shiite Muslim-led Iranian revolution. In particular, they worry about the insurrectional example Iran has set for Iraq's largest distinct community, the Shiite Muslims of the south. Iraqi Shiite discontent has been growing steadily since the Baathists, themselves a minority within the traditionally dominant Sunni minority, first seized power in 1968.
The Iraqi Baathists doubtless are justified in assuming that the plague of assassinations, attacks on party offices, police stations, and units of the People's Militia are inspired by Iran -- if not actually organized from there. These acts of violence, often suicidal in nature, have recently claimed some prominent victims. Among these was a right-hand man of Barzan Tikriti, brother of the President and overlord of the dreaded internal security service.
If Ayatollah Khomeini's strength lies in the power of an idea -- his fiery brand of Shiite fundamentalism -- his weakness lies in the anarchy to which he has reduced his country. It is precisely that weakness that Saddam Hussein now is exploiting to the hilt. For his own strength lies in the absolute, Stalinist nature of his rule and his consequent ability to bend a cohesive apparatus, especially a powerful army, to his own unchallenged purposes.
For Saddam Hussein, therefore, it is first and foremost a war of survival: a military response to a political, psychological, and sectarian challenge from a religious zealot who has always proclaimed a mass uprising against the "godless butchers of Baghdad," agents of the American "great Satan," as one of the first priorities of his Islamic revolution.
As Iraq's strong man, President Hussein wants to discourage the activism of his own Shiite population. At the same time, he wants to rally to his side the Sunnis, who, much through they may dislike him, are well aware that such an uprising would not merely destroy the Baathist regime, it would lead to frightful, indiscriminate vengeance against themselves.
At the same time, it is a war that cannot be dissociated from much broader, geopolitical ambitions. Iraq is still, in theory, linked to Moscow by a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, and Iraqi Vice-Premier Tariq Aziz had just paid an emergency visit to Moscow. But President Hussein has long since blurred the radical, "anti-imperialist" image that he used so diligently to project.
BEfore the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy in 1958, Iraq was valuved as a key Western bastion. Now, more than ever, its wealth, strategic location, relative social and economic advancement, and its powerful Army, make it a natural center of regional influence.
It is true that President Hussein, with his proclamation last February of a national charter, has formally promulgated a doctrine of militant nonalingment. But, set in its evolutionary context, this is designed to appeal to the United States and the West rather than the Soviet Union, whose invasion of Afghanistan alarmed Iraq almost as much as it did such arch-conservative Gulf states as Saudi Arabia.
According to his critics, Mr. Hussein is bidding to replace the late Shah as gerdarme of the Gulf. And certainly, with his massive land, sea, and air assault on the Ayatollah's hostage-taking Iran, he is demonstrating in the most spectacular possible way that, whatever the US Congress and the Zionist lobby may think about it, in straight political terms he is a leader with whom the US can do serious business.
But if, for the West, the Iraqi leader is a new Shah in the making, for the Arabs he is trying to cast himself as a new Nasser. Since last summer's bloody purge of some of his closest henchmen, he has become the object of a personality cult that portrays him as nothing less than a latter-day Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid.
He oftens drops in on ordinary Baghdad homes or, rustically attired, visits desert Bedouin tents. He hands out color television sets or wad of freshly minted bank notes. Poets vie in praise of him.
One, Salahhudin Murad, devoted a whole page of the newspaper al Jumhuriyah to calling him "the perfumr of Iraq, its dates, its estuary of the two rivers, its coast and waters, its sword, its shield, its eagle whose grandeur dazzles the heavens. Since there was an Iraq, you were its awaited, its promised one."
Whether these are just the excesses of his idolators or a reflection of hiw own deepening megalomania is hard to say. But there is no question that the Arab world's most ruthless dictator is also one of its most hardheaded pragmatists.
With the resources at his disposal -- including oil revenues to the tune of $ 36 billion this year -- he is as well placed as he ever will be to achieving the Arab leadership he craves.
It is essentially from Egypt, the traditional "great power" of the region, that he is trying to wrest it. For Nasser's successor, Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, in his bid to make himself a Western gerdarme, has gone so far that he has simultaneously incapacitated himself for the role. Arab public opinion cannot accept his extravagantly proclaimed marriage with the United States, military facilities and all, in what Arabs see as the outrageous context of his separate peace with Israel (another self-appointed candidate for the gendarme's role).
In attacking Iran, Saddam Hussein is posing, Nasser-style, as the all-Arab champion. But the pose is flawed. Ironically, it is Nasser's old adversaries, the pro-Western conservative Arab rulers with most to fear from Ayatollah Khomeini, who most relish the "lesson" that he is now meting out to Iran.
Naturally, it is the pro-Soviet Arab states, and in particular the rival Baathists of Syria, who remain resolutely unimpressed. According to the Syrian prime minister, it all points to the emergence of a new "Baghdad pact" -- the pro-Western alliance of the 1950s, which no one did more to destroy than Nasser.
The Palestinian leadership must have very mixed feelings. The rise of Khomeini shifted the whole Middle East balance of power in their favor.
Arab public opinion is harder to gauge, though there is certainly a sneaking admiration for the brazen panache of a leader (Saddam Hussein) who nonetheless never did command, and never can, the mass appeal of Nasser.
All really depends on the outcome of Saddam Hussein's gamble. And that is still very much in doubt. For all his military superriority, he may find that he has bitten off more than he can chew. The thing from which he sought to profit -- the very shambles of Iran -- might turn to his disadvantage.
The military balance may now have shifted drastically in his favor. But neither a zealot like Khomeini, still less the factions vying demagogically for ascendancy in his shadow, are now capable of such pragmatism in their turn. They are hitting back as best they can, forcing Iraq to raise the stakes.
A month ago, President Hussein said that the best answer to Israel's proclamation of Jerusalem as its eternal, indivisible capital was to bombard Tel Aviv. If he had done that he would indeed be making a serious bid for Nasser's mantle.
It is very much easier to hit Tehran than Tel Aviv. But is is a calculated risk that could easily turn into a reckless adventure.