The 20-month-old Gulf war between Iraq and Iran has till now not been as disruptive of stability in the area as had been generally expected. As a result, the main flow of oil from the Gulf to the noncommunist industrialized world and elsewhere has continued uninterrupted. The chief reason: stalemate in the fighting between the two combatants during 1981 had them, as it were, cancelling each other out and making a spread of hostilities unlikely.
But Iran's two successful offensives this year have broken the stalemate and could produce a threatening situation. Iraq's invading forces have been pushed back close to the common border between the two countries and battle is about to be joined for the important Iranian port city of Khorramshahr on the Shatt al-Arab estuary. This is the last bit of important real estate that the Iraqis hold inside Iran.
What the rest of the Middle East is waiting to see is whether the Iranians--assuming they recapture Khorramshahr--stop at the border or whether, flushed with victory, they in turn invade Iraq. It is the latter course that could produce a new and dangerous situation more likely to disrupt the stability of the Gulf than anything since Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein launched his war in September 1980.
Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries of the Gulf have no desire to see the area dominated either by Saddam Hussein or by the revolutionary religious fundamentalism of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. But of the two, they view Ayatollah Khomeini as a greater threat to themselves than is the Iraqi leader.
Consequently, if a victorious Iranian Army crosses the Shatt al-Arab and invades Iraq, the latter would almost certainly receive more open Arab support than hitherto--with the possibility of a widening of the war beyond the two original combatants. Gulf oil supplies would again be in jeopardy, with the accompanying risk of superpower involvement in the crisis.
None of this would be in the interest either of the Western alliance or the third world. What then should be the policy of the United States to try to head this off?
Admittedly Washington has little leverage with either Iraq or Iran. It has diplomatic relations with neither. But this should not prevent the US from using whatever influence it has in support of an early cease-fire in the Gulf war, regardless of what happens in the battle for Khorramshahr. Negotiations should then follow for a restoration of the status quo ante. There is nothing to be gained--and perhaps much to be lost--by cynically assuming that it will be all right to watch Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini continuing to slug it out in a fight to the finish for one or the other.