Iran-Iraq war may jolt Arab power equation

The Iraqi-Iranian war could threaten the fragile equilibrium that has ruled the Arab world for a decade, with implications for both Washington and Moscow. On the one hand, three Gulf Arab oil producers reportedly intend to step up oil exports to a jittery West as a result of the two- week-old war.

On the other, the President of Syria is readying a trip to Moscow amid intensified rumors he may sign the first formal cooperation treaty between the Kremlin and an Arab state directly bordering Israel.

The Iraqi-Iranian conflict is the latest in a series of jolts to the established Arab order over the past three years, jolts that also include Egypt's peace drive and the fall of the Shah of Iran.

The Arabs, under this pressure, seem to be polarizing and perhaps turning increasingly to the superpowers whose direct Mideast power they have long sought to limit.

The latest report of increased oil production comes from the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh and says Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have agreed among them to pump 3 million extra barrels of oil per day onto the world market. This decision was taken after a visit to the smaller two countries by Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh ahmed Zaki Yamani, the paper said.

The report would seem to suggest that the important Gulf trio -- jittery over potential fallout from the Iraq-Iran conflict -- is ready to shelve growing anger over Washington's Arab-Israeli policy and do an oil- market favor for its suddenly revalued Western allies.

Saudi Arabia, since the start of the war at the top of the Gulf, also has accepted delivery of four US-built aerial surveillance stations (AWACS). US officials say the Saudis in fact requested the radar planes.

But not all the Arab world is moving Westward.

For Syria's President Hafez Assad, the current war threatens to gag a vocal source of regional support for his beleaguered regime -- the Islamic revolutionaries in Iran.

Syria has stuck to the most cautious of comments on the fighting, saying only that the war weakens the Arab front against Israel . . . and indirectly blaming old rival Iraq for this.

At one point at the end of 1978, it looked as though the rival Baath socialist Party regimes in Syria and Iraq might settle past differences amid shared opposition to Egypt's peace initiative.

But the Iraqis have lined up, instead, with the likes of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Iraq now accuses Syria of aiding the Iranians with arms shipments and speaks of the danger of a second battle front with the Syrians.

To Mr. Assad, with his own daunting internal problems, the message must seem clear. He feels threatened, encircled, and isolated, and thus could turn to his strongest remaining friends for help.

There has long been speculation among local analysts that Mr. Assad might abandon past uneasiness over both superpowers and pen a formal friendship pact with the Soviets.

As he prepares for a scheduled Oct. 8 visit to Moscow, such talk is louder than ever. The Iraqi-Iranian conflict, it is suggested, may give the Syrian leader more reason than ever to tilt toward the Kremlin.

Mr. Assad, the argument goes, would like the Soviets on his side in case the Iraqis manage a semblance of victory over Iran and then turn on Syria.

The USSR has long been thought to want a formal friendship treaty with Syria. One suggested reason was that a similar pact with Iraq had in recent years become all but academic under the strain of the Iraqi regime's militant -- and militantly anticommunist -- brand of nonalignment.

But a Soviet treaty with the Syrians would be the first with a state directly bordering Israel, and thus could mean more direct superpower involvement in any future Arab-Israeli fighting.

Hints of a Syrian move toward the Soviets, and of a reinforced link between the Saudis and the US, are seen as two possible indicators the Arab power order prevailing since the October 1973 Mideast war could be coming to an end.

Since 1973, Mideast analysts have thought it feasible that local checks and balances could keep direct big-power involvement in the vital region at bay.

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