For 39 days now, the gulf war between Iran and Iraq has produced a picture of two nations, led by two strong men, spinning inexorably down a whirpool of potential self-destruction -- too stubborn to negotiate, too vengeful to consider compromise, and too well-armed to stop now.
Opportunities to silence the guns with an agreed ceasefire have been ignored by both sides. So far, at least, the peace proposal of the nonaligned nations' conference, which would require Iraq to give up ground it has taken, has not met with success.
For Iran's part, the opportunity to resolve the hostage issue and thereby break out of its international isolation apparently has been stalled yet again. The Iranian parliament Oct. 30 failed to maintain a quorum and postponed a final decision until next week. No one is expecting a decision to slip throgh smoothly then.
The marvel of Gulf war is not that the nations of the world have restrained themselves from jumping in and expanding the war. While confinement of the conflict to the two initial belligerents may indeed signal a growth of international poise, more likely it illustrates an ironic fact about Iran and Iraq: Neither really has any friends.
While the Jordanian, Saudi, and Gulf states root for Iraq, and the Syrian-Libyan side prefers Iran, the modest aid they are extending seems to be no more than token acknowledgement of the slogan, An enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The war has only sharpened divisions that existed before it began. Little love has been lost between Jordan and Syria the past year. For example, Syrian President Hafez Assad charges that Jordan has financed and harbored members of the anti-Assad Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan, meanwhile, executed two alleged Syrian agents Oct. 29.
By the same token, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states frequently shout back and forth across Egypt at Libya. Last week, Col. Muammar Qaddafi charged that the stationing of american radar planes on Saudis soil meant, in effect, that the holiest places of Islam, which are located in Saudi Arabia, were "occupied" by the United States. In response, Saudi Arabia indignantly broke relations with Libya Oct. 28.
Egypt, which has been at odds with both Iran and Iraq for some time, has been curiously quiet, although President Anwar Sadat condemned both nations Oct. 29.
For most old Middle East foes of either Iran or Iraq, the two boisterous and somewhat clumsy prizefighters in the ring offer vicarious pleasure. But Iran and Iraq have done much by themselves to earn their unpopularity.
The rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq (although he is no communist himself) has been characterized by heavy-handed Stalinesque tactics -- bombing Kurdish villages, liquidating opposition at home and overseas, and forcing a cult of personality on his countrymen.
Expatriates of both countries yearn for the overthrow of the present regimes.
His head will roll," an Iraqi living in another Middle Eastern country said of President Hussein, "maybe not tomorrow, but he is not loved. He will soon be toppled from within."
An Iranian living in the US sees Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic republic of Iran as taking his former countrymen on a similar downward course.
"Last week I argued with an employee who likes Khomeini; this week maybe I will fire him," the Iranian told me.
Of course, this is as much an area of threats and professed certitudes as it is of personality cults. Replacements for rulers in both nations may be just as despotic.
If Saddam Hussein is a strong man of the Khaki-and-pistol variety, the Ayatollah is something of one in clerical robes. his is a more subtle form of oppression that batters down opposition through thought-restricting social conformity.
Pitted against each other in this war, neither man so far has been willing to give. Yet there is no unequivoal principle underlying the resort to arms of either.
The Ayatollah is attempting to enforce a treaty virtually imposed on Iraq in 1975 by his hated arch-enemy, the Shah. And Presiden Hussein is fighting for a waterway he himself bargained away four years earlier when, as deputy chairman of Iraq's ruling junta, he put his name to the agreement.
But as happens in most wars, the wills of two strong ment clash on battlefields miles away from them. Others do the shooting and suffer the losses.
And since neither man seems willing to make concessions, analysts in the Midlle East see the two engaged in a headlong war of possibly a year more.