Moscow tries to sit on fence in middle of war zone

As an unhappy Soviet Union still tries to sit on the diplomatic fence between Iraq and Iran, the fighting appears to hold more minuses than pluses for the Kremlin.

As Western analysts here see it, the Soviets are showing by their continued refusal to take sides that they hope for a quick end to the conflict.

Among the negative factors inducing Moscow to hope for a speedy resolution of the fighting are:

* "A certain real fear," as one diplomat put it, that the United States and its allies might, in fact, take military action to keep open the vital Strait of Hormuz.

* Signs that Iran is growing more and more unhappy at Moscow's refusal so far to condemn Iraq or to announce that Soviet arms to Baghdad will be stopped.

* The possibility of new US military aid to Saudi Arabia. The US announced Sept. 30 that it was sending four advanced radar command planes to Saudi Arabia to help defend crucial Persian Gulf oil fields. But Washington insists the move is purely defensive.

* Concern that President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan might gain additional international luster with his current peacemaking mission to Iran and Iraq. President Zia is heartily disliked by the Kremlin for allowing Afghan rebels to have bases near Peshawar.

* Increasing talk of the need for Japan to toughen its military muscles and prepare to defend its sealanes more vigorously.

Western diplomats have been watching closely for any signs, public or private , that Moscow might step in to try to mediate the conflict. So far, they say, there is no indication that Moscow wants to do so.

The Soviets are unhappy that President Zia is trying on behalf of the Islamic council. The Soviet news agency Tass has referred to his mission only once, and fleetingly at that.

Much more popular here was the reported effort by the Cuban foreign minister to find a way to halt the fighting. But the impression is that the Cuban initiative has fizzled. Nothing is heard of it here at this writing.

The Soviets don't want to antagonize either Iraq or Iran, it seems. A mediation effort carries risks: Not only might it end up alienating either or both combatants, but also it could well fail if tried at the wrong time.

And Moscow dislikes being identified with failure.

As Western analysts see it, the Soviets could yet stand to gain from the fighting.

The head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, is also trying to mediate -- and Mr. Arafat is one of Moscow's favorite allies in the Arab world. There is always the possibility that Ayatollah Khomeini and his fervent Islamic nationalism might be toppled by the Iraqi attacks, and a government installed in Tehran more amenable to talking to Moscow.

Any closure of the Strait of Hormuz would confront Japan and the West in general with a pending oil shortage.

But the minuses, from the Kremlin point of view, seem to outweigh the pluses as the fighting drags on.

Moscow voted in the UN Security Council to support the cease-fire call. But it is said here that the Soviets did not show much enthusiasm for the backstage maneuvering before the vote.

The evidence so far is that Moscow hopes to ride out the fighting with calls for a ceasefire, with reporting from both sides, and with trying to divert attention from its own dilemma by continually warning the Arab world that only the US and Israel stand to gain from the war.

While analysts see the drum-beating here about a gathering of US naval strength as primarily propaganda, they also recognize a degree of genuine Soviet concern. The feeling is that Iraq is in a stronger bargaining position than Iran is in a stronger bargaining position than Iran in the fighting. Iraq holds Iranian territory but Iran holds no corresponding Iraqi land. This would explain Iraq's readiness to accept mediation or a cease-fire -- on its own terms. Iran so far has not been interested in talks.

Meanwhile, the Iranian ambassador to Moscow, Muhammad Mokri, has sharpened his attacks on the Kremlin for refusing to say publicly that it is cutting off arms supplies to Iraq under the 1972 friendship and cooperation treaty. Sept. 29 he said that if Moscow sent "one more bullet" to Iraq, "this will be considered a very unfriendly gesture."

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