In the opening weeks of the Reagan presidency, the always-changing region from Cairo to Kabul has been jostled by new developments sure to affect the making of US foreign policy.
There are three distinct trends in early 1981:
* A lower profile for the United States in the region.
* Moves by medium-weight powers such as France, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to enhance regional security.
* Continued overall Arab-Israeli stalemate, with new options appearing on the horizon.
First, of course, comes the successful return of the American hostages from Iran, which opens the way for a fresh start in US policy toward Iran. But American political analysts in the area warn not to expect the US or Iran to give any public sign of rapprochement for some time to come.
With the hostages no longer a factor in Iranian politics (although the settlement terms may be), a direct power struggle could ensue among moderates, leftists, and clergy -- ever under the threat of Soviet involvement from across the Caspian Sea. Haggling can also be expected over the course of the Gulf war, now bogged down for the winter.
A fresh mediation attempt was made just after the turn of the year by United Nations special envoy Olof Palme, but so far it does not appear to have borne fruit. Statements from Baghdad indicate that Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, who seemed most eager to accept Mr. Palme's mission, may be contemplating establishment of a separate Arab state on territory in Khuzestan won from Iran.
Iranian forces, however, have not been routed and would be sure to challenge any such Iraqi-controlled state. But the Iranians are hurting militarily. A counterattack launched in early January made little headway and cost a great deal in personnel and materiel. The attack seemed doomed from outset, because the element of surprise was all but lost: The Iranian clergy had been clamoring for dramatic action on the battlefield, and moderate Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was known to be scrambling to protect his standing as leader of the military effort.
One of the more interesting outcomes of the hostage episode was the emergence of Algeria as a mature, moderate peacemaker. This may mean that North African problems -- such as the long dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the Western Sahara -- will not be as violent in the future. But another new North African development is causing ripples of apprehension throughout the Mediterranean area and Africa.
In early January, Chad and Libya announced a merger, which some analysts describe as more of a "shotgun marriage," given the presence of some 5,000 Libyan troops in the Central African nation.
A dozen neighboring African states of the Organization of African Unity reacted angrily to the announced union and promised to send OAU forces to the country. Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, a bitter enemy of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi, has also been making known his concerns. He sees Libyan expansionism, as well as the lingering Somalia-Ethiopia, dispute, as veiled Soviet maneuvers against Egypt.
Diplomats here believe that an Egyptian-Libyan clash could be in the making, especially if Libya in any way threatens the security of Sudan, which is closely tied to Egypt.
France, which has postcolonial ties with much of Central and West Africa, has sent troops to the Central African Republic to bolster that nation's defenses against the Libyan-Chad axis. Even if the French troops do no fighting, their high-profile presence there does seem to illustrate the activist role a major ally of the US has chosen to pursue in the region.
France and West Germany, in fact, seem to be taking up tasks (and signing cotnracts) that the US once did exclusively. In late autumn, French companies signed a $3.4 billion deal with Saudi Arabia to build up the latter's naval capabilities. And in January, West Germany moved closer to snapping up a $1 billion contract to sell Saudi Arabia 300 Leopard 2 tanks and a number of armored personnel carriers.
Regional observers believe that if the Saudi Arabians wanted their US-build F-15 jets to have offensive capabilities (rather than just testing the strength of the Saudi-US relationship), they would find a European or Far Eastern manufacturer to fabricate the equipment.
"The United States is finding out that it is neither the only 'protector' nor the only military supplier in the Middle East," says a Western source. "And if the Saudis want to protect their own oil fields, why should American boys be sent there to get shot up?"
Aside from arming themselves due to regional instability, the Saudis have also been at the center of Arab peacemaking and collective security arrangements. It was Saudi Prince Abdullah Aziz who succeeded in reducing border tension between Syria and Jordan in December. In late January, the Saudis even moved the site of the third annual Islamic summit conference from Mecca 50 miles to Taif to allow Lebanese President Elias Sarkis, a Christian, to attend.
Meanwhile, the Saudis have pushed ahead with a security pact among the sheikhdoms of the Gulf itself and possibly Pakistan. The security ties, in part , are an answer to continued Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, where Russian troops are into their second year of fighting. The Saudi effort to bring Pakistan into the new security group could be in exchange for aid to Afghan rebels operating out of Pakistan. Rebel operations still show no signs of uniting, but hit-and-run raids against the Soviets persist. Pakistan's President Zia ul-Haq recently warned that his country could be the next to suffer from Soviet agrression.
The worldwide oil surplus persists, despite the damage to Iraqi and Iranian facilities because of the war. Iran has resumed exports, which, added to the Saudi oil production level of about 10.2 million barrels per day, have continued to allow slack in the supply system. Prices have risen moderately to the base of $32 per barrel set at Bali, Indonesia, in December. But nations other hand Saudi Arabia is contemplating cutting back its output to 9.5 million barrels a day.
Security of the oil supply is always a concern. The Saudis and other Arabs emphasize that a big step toward security would come from solution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem. $K$At present, Camp David is on hold while its principals do some recasting. President Reagan will take up, if he chooses, where Jimmy Carter left off, and it appears that Israel will also have a new leader by summer.
In Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Cabinet finally reached the breaking point in early January, clearing the way for elections, now scheduled for July. Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, a moderate on Arab-Israeli relations , could become the next prime minister. Meanwhile, Mr. Begin has accelerated plans for building settlements on the West Bank, which is bound to anger moderate Arab leaders such as Jordan's King Hussein.
So far, however, no alternative to Camp David has come forward, although talk persists of a "Jordanian option" involving King Hussein. A reformulted Palestinian autonomy plan could emerge from a possible Reagan-Sadat-Begin summit , but it is not clear if the Reagan administration is interested in conducting such a meeting.
The European Community will very shortly unveil its own Mideast plan, which is expected to seek the evacuation of occupied territories, Palestinian self-determination, and international status for Jerusalem. The Begin government is expected to reject such a plan.
Lack of resolution of Israel's disputes with neighbors other than Egypt is weighing most heavily of Lebanon, which continues to experience dangerous internal problems. In January, there was renewed fighting between the Shiite Muslim AMAL movement and the supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization. This is a problem with roots in the continuing PLO-Israeli clashes in predominantly Shiite southern Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the Maronite Christian Falange forces in northern Lebanon have clashed with the Syrian "Arab deterrent force" at Zahle, west of Beirut. The Falange has renewed its calls for withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country.
There also are indications the Falange is beginning to carry out a long-anticipated drive to carve out a Maronite mini-state in the Mt. Lebanon region by first proposing a federal system on a confessional (religious) basis, then breaking away.
As with all other problems in the Mideast, the future of Lebanon is tied to that of sundry other cuntries, movements, and personalities.
US foreign policy will have to take into account these trends -- and be braced for new surprises in the months ahead.