The real danger in Iraq's threat on Iran

Iraq has been trying to get the Western industrial world's attention since last August. It has had very little success, except for Japan. This week it tried again.

What Baghdad wants is to bring about at least a partial cease-fire in the ports and sea lanes of the Gulf between itself and Iran. It then hopes that truce could be extended to a general cease-fire - on land as well as at sea.

Baghdad's only leverage, this week as last fall, has been the threat to cut off Iran's oil exports by sea. Those exports are Tehran's main means of financing its war. A cutoff would put Iran on more of an even footing with Iraq, whose own terminals into the Gulf were destroyed early in the four-year-old war.

Iraq would, in fact, have an oil advantage over Iran if it were able to put either Iran's Kharg Island terminal or the tankers calling there out of operation.

Baghdad has found it increasingly difficult to pay its war bills. Iran, while also hard pressed, has earned more from its exports via Kharg Island through the Strait of Hormuz. Nearly 90 percent of Iran's oil sailing out of Hormuz turns east to fuel the booming economies of the Far East - from Japan and Korea to Singapore.

Two factors pulling in opposite directions have left Western strategists differing over the importance of the Strait.

Those strategists who look to the past say that the need to worry about a Hormuz cutoff has shrunk. They argue that the situation that led James Schlesinger, a former secretary of both defense and energy, to picture the Gulf and Hormuz as the strategic fulcrum of the world no longer applies. Then, in the late 1970s, there was both an acute oil shortage and a belief that the Soviets were poised to move from Afghanistan into dissident provinces of Iran. Helped by Iran's communist Tudeh Party, the argument went, Moscow could control Iranian oil supplies and intimidate neighbors such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

Instead, Moscow is tied down in Afghanistan, Tudeh leaders have been executed as recently as last week by the Khomeini government, and a modified oil glut persists in the world.

But planners who look ahead rather than back to the 1970s are concerned for a different reason. They agree that world oil supplies are sufficient for the near term. They see new discoveries in the China Sea, off Scotland, and perhaps in the salt domes of the Gulf of Mexico helping to cushion declining supplies from older fields. And they generally agree that Soviet designs on, or influence over , Iran are weak at this time.

What worries these planners is the rise of petroleum demand as Western industrial countries that languished in 1983 recover in 1984 and beyond. This rise in demand would be by the very countries that buy Iranian oil (Japan and its high-growth neighbors) or fairly important amounts of Iraqi oil, or oil from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates that flows past Hormuz (Western Europe).

But it is the threat of a slowdown or cutoff that causes concern when either Iran or Iraq appears desperate.

Beyond such commercial calculations, there is also a human tragedy that moves diplomats who know the area well.

A former ambassador recently said of Iran: ''The Shah was guilty of egomania. He wanted to rebuild the Persian Empire in his lifetime. He allowed waste, corruption, torture, in order to have grandeur and the most modern of everything. In reaction, the Ayatollah Khomeini has not only dismembered even the good modern advances; he has also been guilty of a greater crime. While the Shah engaged in a profligate waste of money, the Ayatollah has wasted the lives of nearly a whole generation of teen-agers. That is a crime Iran will feel for many years.''

''And Iraq,'' he added, ''was potentially a greater country than Saudi Arabia. It has water, fertile soil in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, and population , as well as almost as much petrol as the Saudis. It started well. New plants for heavy industry and consumer industry. The best architects. Better schools. But all that has been mortgaged to a quick and easy war that has lasted as long as World War I, and with many of the same campaigns of mass idiocy.''

At the moment, only Japan is seriously trying to mediate an end to the deadlocked struggle.

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