The war between Iran and Iraq is having at least three immediate strategic effects that are putting the Middle East in a state of flux: 1. It is making the US-Soviet relationship potentially more fluid in the region.
This is most visible in the case of the two Gulf belligerents. To An Iran that has been implacably anti-American, the United States is sending signals indicating a willingness to improve relations.
Simultaneously, Iraq is getting less support than it probably had counted on from its suppopsed patron, the USSR. Indeed, since the war began, Moscow has gone out of its way to make friendly noises about the revolution in Iran.
2. The war also is producing another potentially fluid relationship -- that between the states in the region, particularly the Arab states.
3. The hostilities underline the fact, increasingly apparent since the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that the strategic center of the region, in terms of US policy at least, has shifted eastward from Israel toward the Persian Gulf.
Against this background (and as the US presidential election campaign enters its final week), it is understandable that the news headlines are dominated by speculation about the possible release of the US hostages held for nearly a year in Iran -- and that the historymaking first visit ever of an Israeli president to an Arab state, Egypt, gets only subsidiary notice.
At the heart of this shift in emphasis is revived recognition that within the so-called arc of crisis as a whole, Iran is the most valuable and strategically situated piece of real estate.
That was its role (as Persia) in the days of the "great game" more than a century ago between Queen Victoria's Britain and the Russia of the czars for primacy in the area from the Caspian Sea down to the Gulf and across to the foothills of the Himalayas in the Hindu Kush. That was its role in the early days of World War II and of the short-lived Hitler-Stalin pact, when Hitler balked at recognizing Iran as being in the Soviet sphere of interest.
Again, after Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union, the never-changing strategic importance of Iran in any great-power struggle led Churchill and Stalin to move jointly to occupy the country and depose Reza Shah to prevent Iran's being brought into the Nazi camp.
Today, this same strategic importance -- enhanced by the dependence of so much of the world on Gulf oil -- explains the maneuvering of the US and the USSR on the perimeter of the five-week-old war between Iran and Iraq.
Iraq, for all its leader's burning desire to be policeman of the Gulf, holds at most only a score of miles of open coastline. But Iran has the entire northern Gulf shore and controls the northern side of the Strait of Hormuz at the Gulf's entrance.
Piquantly, in the current game for advantage in Iran, each of today's superpowers is inhibited in its ability to exploit the war to its benefit -- quite apart from the concern presumably shared by Washington and Moscow to avoid nuclear confrontation.
The Soviet Union has a treaty of friendship with Iraq and is Iraq's main supplier of arms. Consequently, Moscow cannot turn its back too blatantly on Iraq without putting at risk its credibility with other clients. This consideration, incidentally, did not prevent the Soviets from ditching Somalia in the 1970s in favor of Ethiopia. Like Iran now, Ethiopia was a strategically important empire once in the US orbit but threatened with fragmentation in the aftermath of revolutionary upheaval.
The US, for its part, has been at logger-heads with Iran ever since the ouster of the Shah. Moreover, US public opinion would not allow any administration to make a move to help Iran without Iran first freeing the 52 hostages, now nerly a year in captivity.
If the hostages were freed and the US then tilted openly toward Iran, the US would still have problems. Its most immediate challenge would be to reassure Saudi Arabia, its most important and dependent associate in the Gulf area. The Saudi government knows it must be seen to side with Iraq in the latter's conflict with non-Arab Iran -- despite private Saudi misgivings about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his policies.
But Saudi misgivings are deeper still about the likely militancy of a revolutionary Shia Muslim Iran emerging intact from the war with Iraq. Hence Saudi concern about the US giving too much help to Iran.
Add to that Washington's delimma about how to show its willingness militarily to support Saudi Arabia itself in case of need (on which the Saudis count) without running afoul of Saudi sensitivities.
The Gulf war has pulled Jordan closer to Iraq and Syria, and Libya closer to non-Arab Iran. Other Arab lands are cautious toward both belligerents, mainly because the Iraqi President has never been their favorite standard bearer for the Arab cause as a whole.
Egyptian President Sadat calls down anathemas on both Iraqis and Iranians and has gone so far as to say both are behaving like irresponsible teen-agers.
The Israelis, whose President Navon is on an official visit to Egypt, watch with concern as the Gulf has broken the monopoly they once seemed to have as the center of US interest and loyalty in the Middle East. They invoke the Iran-Iraq war against the argument heard in Europe and North America that Israel is the main source of Mideast instability.
And some of them are using the war to press their case that the US is making a mistake in rejecting Israeli in favor of ARab facilities for use by the US if it needs to deploy forces at short notice in the Gulf area.
The Israeli point is that Israel remains the one rock of stability in the Middle East, and that the Gulf war shows just how unstable any toehold in the Arab world can be.