Moscow's cautious reactions so far to the Iran-Iraqi fighting do not seem to bear out suspicions in Washington that the Kremlin might be supporting an Iraqi bid to seize Iranian oil fields and starve the West of oil.
The Soviets have gone out of their way to avoid taking sides. First Izvestia , and now Pravda, have made strong appeals for a cease-fire, peace talks, restrain, and common sense. The papers, reflecting the highest government and party levels here, have stressed that the news from Iran and Iraq is "alarming" and "of serious concern and regret."
Both combatants are portrayed as staunchly anti-imperialist and opposed to the Camp David talks between the US, Egypt, and Israel.
The newspapers warn that only the US and Israel stand to gain from the fighting: The US and its allies allegedly want Iran to be further weakened and more amenable to US pressure, and they also want to be able to "achieve changes in Iraqi foreign policy," in Izvestia's words.
Izvestia added that any aggravation of tension between Iran and Iraq "plays only into the hands of the imperialist forces." To experienced Westerners in Moscow, these are not the words of a Kremlin that has already decided which of the two countries to support.
When Moscow makes such a decision -- for instance, when it chose Ethiopia over Somalia two years ago -- the propaganda machine leaps into action. No praise is too much for the chosen friend, no blame too harsh for the hapless enemy.
No such propaganda shift has been seen here at this writing. The Soviet press continues to report both official positions, Iraqi first, then Iranian, along with Arab League calls for a cease-fire and a Kuwaiti dispatch that US naval vessels reportedly were moving toward "the zone of hostilities."
Indeed, the available evidence here suggests that the Soviet dilemma is sharpening steadily.
If the Kremlin backs Iraq, it could lose its dream of replacing the US as Iran's main ally once Ayatollah Khomeini leaves the scene. But if the Soviets support Iran (by cutting off arms supplies to Iraq, for instance) they would incur the enmity of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, a powerful leader intent on playing a larger role in Arab affairs.
While the Soviet Union is in principle certainly not averse to causing trouble for the West, to urge Iraq to try to seize Iranian oil installations or interfere with oil supplies throught the Gulf would invite not only massive Western condemnation but also open retaliation.
Such a Soviet policy would look even worse if revealed to the world later by Iraq. It is more likely, experienced sources here believe, that Moscow will maintain normal supplies of arms to Baghdad under the 1972 treaty between the Soviets and the Iraqis, but not increase them.
Military sources speculate the Soviets, who don't really want all this instability on their southern borders, might quietly cut back on supplies of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles for the Soviet-built bombers and fighters in the Iraqi Air Force.
But sources doubt the Soviets have much real political leverage in Baghdad, apart from military aid. relations with the Iraqis have been strained for two years now. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has distrusted Soviet expansionism, especially since the fall of the Shah next door. He has purged local Iraqi communist ranks, including some members of the Revolutionary Command Council.
But Baghdad does not want Moscow favoring Iran. Saddam Hussein already has sent a special envoy to Moscow to talk to senior party and Foreign Ministry officials. No details were announced. But is is thought here that the envoy outlined Iraqi war plans and reminded Moscow of the 1972 peace and friendship treaty between the two countries.
Now Iran is trying to exert counterpressure. The Iranian Ambassador to Moscow, Muhammad Mokri, called in correspondents late Sept. 23 to tell them he also had gone to the Kremlin and had made two demands.
One, he said, was that Moscow denounce Iraqi aggresion in a public statement, and that the Soviets stop, immediately, all arms supplies to Iraq. Soviet officials reportedly replied they were taking a neutral stance on the fighting, that they wanted a cease-fire and talks, that only the imperialists in the West stood to gain.
As for arms to iraq, they were provided under the 1972 treaty. It did not sound to those listening to Dr. Mokri as if the Soviets had given any assurances that the flow of arms would stop.
So Moscow is being pressed from both sides. Its initial response is to try to stay above the fray, to call for peace, and to resort to its traditional answer for the world's ills: blaming the United States.