As the Gulf war between Iraq and Iran moves into its fourth week, it shows signs of becoming increasingly dangerous.The state of play is as folows: * The superpowers: While both the United States and the Soviet Union profess neutrality, each is maneuvering on the periphery to protect its own interests -- no matter what turn the fighting takes in the days ahead.
* The participants: Iran is trying simultaneously to break out of its self-imposed international isolation and to rally its forces on the ground to withstand a renewed Iraqi offensive. With that offensive, Iraq is trying to end the unexpected stalemate (which works to its disadvantage and Iran's advantage) and to seize Dezful and Ahvaz; its aim is to cut off the rest of Iran from the oil fields in the southwest.
* The nervous local spectators: some of the Arab states are edging off the fence and, following the example of Jordan's King Hussein, are beginning to lean one way or the other. Israel watches anxiously, concerned: (1) lest stridently anti-Israel Iraq increase its power and influence; and (2) lest the Carter administration's increasing involvement with the Arab states of the Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, lessen Israel's strategic importance to the US.
At this stage the US is beefing up its measured show of strength to head off any extension of hostilities to the Arab side of the Gulf and the disruption of the flow of oil from there. The latest moves are the dispatch of a missile cruiser into the Gulf itself and the sending of tanker aircraft from the European theater to Saudi Arabia to enable the four American AWACS radar surveillance planes already there to remain in the air for 24 hours at a time.
There is no report of any parallel move of additional Soviet aircraft or ships into the immediate area, but the pattern of Soviet behavior does not suggest any apathy in Moscow about trying to exploit the situation to its advantage. Although at the outset of the fighting, Iraq was perceived as a Soviet client under the patronage of the Kremlin, the Soviet aim now apparently is to stake out the ground to be able to reap a harvest, regardless of which way the Gulf war goes.
The preservation of a united Iran would seem to be in the interest of both Moscow and Washington.
For the US, this is desirable to keep the USSR as far as possible from the entire northern side of the Gulf and to avoid the disruptive consequences of a disintegrating Iran.
For the Soviet Union, a disintegrating Iran inviting direct Soviet military intervention in yet another Muslim land would be a poisoned chalice, given Moscow's frustrating 10- month-old military involvement in neighboring Muslim Afghanistan. But best of all for the Soviet leadership would be an Iran having preserved its integrity thanks to Soviet help and support in the current conflict.
This has already been offered, if Tehran radio reports are accurate, despite Moscow's treaty of friendship with Iraq. At the outset of the fighting, the Soviet ambassador in Tehran is said to have gone as far as telling Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai that Moscow disapproved of Iraq's actions and was willing to provide Iran with military aid.
Mr. Rajai reportedly gave the ambassador a flea in his ear, rejecting the offer and lecturing him on Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
But the Soviet Union is not discouraged. Two protential proxies in the Arab world are being used -- or are letting themselves seem to be used -- to press Moscow's suit.
At the end of last week, President Assad of Syria, an archfoe of Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein and thus a putative ally of Iran, was given red-carpet treatment in the Kremlin and signed there, after years of hesitation, a ritual treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, pro-Iraqi King Hussein of Jordan postponed a planned visit to Moscow.
The other potential Soviet proxy, Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi --- short on conventional political maturity but, well- endowed with oil money -- has come out openly on Iran's side and may well have applied Iran with some weaponry since the fighting started, presumably with Soviet blessing.
Moscow once before has ditched a friend and switched sides when a bigger fish than the assumed friend became available for the hooking. That was back in the middle 1970s when the Soviet Union abandoned Somalia and became the patron of neighboring Ethiopia. Ethiopia then, like Iran now, was a recent US ally overtaken by revolutionary upheaval and threatened by disintegration.
Iraq reads history, and strong man Sadddam sent his deputy, Tareq Aziz, to Moscow as soon as the fighting started in what many assume was an effort to prevent his country from eventually being given the Somalia treatment by the USSR.
According to the usually well-informed Tehran correspondent of the Paris newspaper, Le Monde, the Soviet ambassador there told the Iranians that Mr. Aziz was not invited to Moscow and was received there by nobody higher than the Soviet deputy foreign minister.
Iran's maneuvering in this maze is many faceted and may not be due entirely to the persistence of conflicting power centers in Tehran. (Le Monde's man says these are: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's circle of close advisers; President Abolhassan Bani-Sdr's "brains trust"; and the Rajai Cabinet, such as it is, chosen by the fundamentalist yet faction-riden Iranian parliament.)
Throughout history, the Persians have had an uncanny skill in playing off outsiders against one other to their country's ultimate advantage -- alhtough the game occasionally has cost them dearly. Yet this could be the aim of their present maneuvering.
The biggest obstacle for the Iranians in getting this game started is their continued detention of the 52 US hostages, now in their 12th month of captivity. Against this background should be seen the references (in the MacNeil-Lehrer report on public television) to the hostages and the possibility of their release by the leader of the Iranian delegation to the UN General Assembly, Ali Shams Ardakani.