Next round in Mideast: from Tehran to Paris to Jerusalem
ANYONE who remembers the ``mad bomber'' scare in New York can grasp the larger-scale anguish of Paris. Having bombs exploding in unpredictable places at unexpected times disrupts even the most commonplace routines of life in a great city. It would be a mistake, though, to view the terror bombings in Paris as just that. The attacks ostensibly involve only an attempt to free three Lebanese attackers from French jails. But they seem to be part of a larger effort. That is an attempt to hasten France's retreat from the United Nations international peace-keeping force (UNIFIL) in South Lebanon.
Already the French component of UNIFIL has been withdrawn to less-exposed duty after suffering unusually high casualties for such a noncombat refereeing force.
If withdrawal from UNIFIL occurs, it may be only a matter of time before UNIFIL itself goes. And that would put the full weight of Shia guerrilla pressure on Israeli occupation troops in the area north of the Israeli border.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to preempt Palestinian attacks across its northern border. It has kept its troops in the southern region of Lebanon to provide a buffer against such attacks. It did so against the advice of top-ranking Israeli defense officials, who feared what is now happening.
They warned Israel's political leaders that occupation troops would turn against Israel the very Lebanese Muslims who had once been strong opponents of Yasir Arafat's Palestinian guerrilla forces in Lebanon.
Faced with this rising danger in the country Gen. Ariel Sharon had promised to ``pacify,'' the outgoing and incoming Israeli governments are anxiously try- ing to keep in place the UN force they once scorned.
They are discovering that the extremist elements of the fundamentalist Shias are a more hazardous opponent than Arafat's PLO. The Iranian-backed Shias are well supplied and more apt to engage in suicide attacks than the Palestinians.
The same irony hangs over Israel's aid in the destruction of the power of the Amal militia in Lebanon, only to have it supplanted by the far more uncompromising Hezbullah.
Like the Germans in Russia, Americans in Vietnam, Vietnamese in Cambodia, Russians in Afghanistan, and numerous other interveners, the forces Sharon triumphantly led into Lebanon now fit John Steinbeck's memorable phrase about Nazi invaders in Norway: ``The flies have conquered the flypaper.''
Won't the French government stiffen its resolve to stay in Lebanon in the face of bombing in Paris and attacks in Lebanon? Perhaps for a while.
And what if the French -- and the UN -- do eventually withdraw. Does it matter to Washington and Moscow as well as to Israel and the Arabs? Yes.
Potentially important changes are going on across the Mideast during a period of relatively benign neglect by the superpowers. Iran is massing for another human-wave push into Iraq. Its aim presumably is to cut the Basra-to-Baghdad highway.
Perhaps, more boldly, Tehran dreams of installing a pro-Iranian Shia government in the South of Iraq. Such success, unlikely but not totally impossible, would put a major source of world oil under Iranian influence. It would further frighten the neighboring Gulf states, even without any threat of invasion.
It might conceivably cause Turkey to intervene in the Iraqi north, with the justification of protecting the pipeline that cuts through Turkey to the Mediterranean.
As indicated, such military success for Iran seems unlikely, but not impossible. If contingency planners in Washington and Moscow examine the consequences, they won't like what they see. Nor would Israel, despite its past covert aid to Iran.
Moscow might appear to gain. An Iranian success could raise world (therefore Soviet) oil prices.
(The two nations have a checkered relationship over petroleum. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's takeover, Tehran cut its gas pipeline to the southern Soviet Union. Moscow countered with a new pipeline to channel its own petrol southward. Now the two countries have struck a deal to send Iran's gas flowing again. Lest Moscow presume too much, though, Iran recently boarded and temporarily held a Soviet ship in the Gulf. Iran continues to board and search some 10 ships a day, and presumably will examine other Soviet vessels.)
Mikhail Gorbachev might be happy if Iran could force world oil prices upward. Petroleum is Moscow's biggest hard-currency earner (some 60 percent of the total). It is thus the key to paying for the massive retooling that tops Gorbachev's agenda.
But the Kremlin leadership would hardly want to achieve that aim at the expense of further strengthening the power of Muslim fundamentalism across a greater expanse of the Soviet southern border, where most of its own Muslims live.
Washington obviously would not be happy about any Iranian breakthrough, either. The US has remained neutral in the Iran-Iraq war. But it has not concealed its desire to protect the tough Iraqi regime from defeat by Tehran. Iraq serves as a buffer against the undermining of the great oil-exporting basin to its south. It has also managed some unusually efficient economic development, despite the war.
Furthermore, the Reagan administration does not want to repeat its mistake of committing troops in Lebanon. Any obstacle that lessens the Khomeini regime's ability to support unrest there is an asset.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.