The greatest Middle East danger

No war today is potentially more dangerous, and the world less aware of, than the one which has been going on for the last two years between Iran and Iraq. It is dangerous because, were Iran to win, the Arab oil-producing Gulf sheikhdoms, especially Kuwait and Bahrain, would either throw themselves on Iran's mercy or be taken over by Iran-like Muslim fundamentalist fanatics.

The war is so little known because newspaper correspondents hardly ever can cover it at the front. It is even less understood because Iran's motive force is Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism, one of the most important, and less comprehended, political epidemics of our time.

Iraq foolishly began the war to take advantage of Iran's then supposed disorder and thus to recover territory it had ceded to the Shah in 1975. This year a successful Iranian counteroffensive has driven the Iraqis back to their borders. There, however, they have so far stopped three Iranian counterattacks. More, however, are likely. Iraq can no longer hope to win the war, while Iran may. So far Khomeini's position seems stronger, and Iraq's Saddam Hussein's weaker, as a result.

One of the surprises of this war, and potentially the most important, is that Iran has built a genuinely, and partially victorious, revolutionary army. Khomeini has successfully, and most bloodily, carried out a five-fold revolution. It has been, first, a revolution of theocratic religious fanaticism, comparable to, and much bloodier than, Savonarola and the Cromwellian religious fanatics. It aims to overthrow all Arab regimes and replace them with fundamentalist Muslim theocracies, under Khomeini's hegemony.

It is, second, a revolution of Iranian national and imperial renaissance. Its explicit aims are to avenge the Arab defeat of the Persian Empire at Qadaysah in 674 (so long are Middle Eastern memories!) and thus to revive, as the Shah unsuccessfully tried to, the historic Persian Empire. (The Middle East has only two historic nations, Iran and Egypt; the rest, including Iraq, are colonial creations.)

It has been, third, a major social revolution, which has deposed Iran's Westernized oligarchy and benefitted its lower classes.

It is, fourth, both anti-American and anti-Soviet - what most Muslims like to feel that they can afford to be.

Finally, its revolutionary army is a combination of a re-created professional army and air force (less the generals and some of the colonels) and the fanatical teen-age ''Pasdaran,'' whose human waves storm and die by the thousands before the Iraqi machine-gun emplacements. This revolutionary army, which reminds one of Carnot's after the French Revolution, has helped consolidate Khomeini's revolutionary regime.

What of the future?

It will be primarily determined by two unpredictable developments. The first will be the result of the war. It will, as I have said, in all probability not end in an Iraqi victory, but rather either in a prolonged stalemate or an Iranian victory. The second will be how long Khomeini and Saddam Hussein will remain in power. Given the former's advanced age, Iran will hardly much longer be ruled by him. Given Saddam's defeats, the same may be true of him.

Whatever happens, this remains the most important, the most bloody, and potentially the most dangerous war in the world today, a ferocious combination of nationalist, religious, and ideological fanaticism. One can only hope that it will not prove to be the fuse that will destroy what stability remains in the oil-rich Arab Gulf states.

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