For the first time in several years, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait appear to have been involved in serious, though low-key, talks aimed at preventing a new escalation of the Persian Gulf war. Before going to Geneva earlier this month for the meeting the Organization of Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Iranian oil minister met with his Saudi and Kuwaiti counterparts in separate sessions. The main purpose of the meetings was to discuss oil issues. But Western diplomats in the region say they believe the officials also discussed the six-year-old Iran-Iraq war -- a factor that has caused concern among Arab nations of the Gulf. The Iranian delegate described these talks as being held in a ``friendly atmosphere.''
Although the 17-day OPEC session, which ended Wednesday, was often contentious, there was reportedly no head-on confrontation between Iran and the Saudis and Kuwaitis -- both of whom support Iraq in the war. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are both concerned that the Iranian regime's ideology could influence their own and other Shiite Muslim minorities in the region, and have backed Iraq in an effort to prevent this.
But even this apparent lessening of tension, Western diplomats fear, may not be enough to prevent the Iran-Iraq war from climaxing this winter. They stress that Iranian officials, in public speeches, continue to threaten to blockade their Arab neighbors' oil exports. Iran's Navy and Air Force continue to attack ships entering or leaving ports on the southern shores of the Gulf.
Iran has so far refrained from launching its long-anticipated ``final offensive'' against Iraq, officials contacted in Tehran say, because they hope to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict. This is a significant departure from Iran's earlier position that it was intent on a military victory over Iraq alone.
However, one Iranian condition remains unchanged: the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Foreign diplomats in Tehran and in other Gulf states say Saudi and Kuwaiti leaders have privately indicated they would be ready to dump Mr. Hussein, should Iran renounce the idea of setting up an Iranian-style ``Islamic republic'' in Baghdad.
``Arab Gulf countries are frightened by the prospect of a decisive Iranian military victory that might destabilize their region,'' says a senior European diplomat. ``They're tempted to accept a compromise that would avoid the coming to power in Baghdad of Islamic fundamentalists loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini.'' Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are now reportedly pressuring Hussein to scale down air strikes on targets inside Iran.
And the Iranians, too, seem to be warming to the idea of a compromise settlement -- for reasons of their own.
``The Iranians are no longer confident that they can finish the Iraqi Army this winter,'' the European diplomat says. ``They are also eager to avoid the huge number of casualties such an offensive would involve. The Iranian economy's bad shape won't allow the country's leaders to continue the war indefinitely.''
The first sign of Iran's new position came in August, when, in a carefully worded speech on Iranian TV, the speaker of Iran's parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, said Iran would accept replacement of the present Iraqi regime by any other government, even if it were pro-US.
Observers in Tehran view this statement as a conciliatory message aimed at the United States and its conservative Arab allies in the Gulf region.
Iran would ask for war reparations from such a new Iraqi government, Mr. Rafsanjani added. Iran also insists that all Iraqi refugees of Iranian origin, who were expelled from Iraq, be allowed back.
Many Iranian soldiers still say that their final aim is to bring to power in Baghdad a coalition of Iraqi Islamic fundamentalist leaders now in exile in Tehran. ``But,'' an Iranian official said recently,``no Iranian leader seriously believes those Iraqi clerics will ever be capable of running their country.''
In September, several Western nations, including the US and France, reportedly agreed to a proposal by Norwegian diplomats who offered to ask Iran and Iraq for a truce in attacks against all shipping in the Gulf.
This move is seen as a concession to Iran. Since the ``tanker war'' began in early 1984, Iran has said it supports the principle of free navigation in the Gulf. But Iraq refuses to accept a limited ceasefire applying only to tanker attacks that would not prevent the Iranians from launching ground offensives. Iran has responded to Iraqi raids on its oil loading facilities and tankers in the vicinity by attacking ships entering or leaving ports in the southern Gulf. Western observers believe Iraq presently has the edge in this tit-for-tat tanker war and has seriously disrupted Iranian oil exports.
``We haven't been able yet to convince the Iraqis to accept this limited truce,'' says a European diplomat in Tehran.``But if the present behind-the-scenes conversations to put an end to the war fail, and if the Iranians fail to achieve substantial military successes this winter, we will come back with our proposal next spring.''
``If no peace treaty between Iran and Iraq is possible,'' he continues, ``a halt to hostilities in the Gulf would be a first step. We would then try to convince the Iranians to accept a no war-no peace situation [a stalemate, without a political or military solution] on the land battlefield.''
In speeches, Iranian leaders continue to say they will defeat the Iraqi Army once and for all in the coming months. A generally well-informed source in Tehran says the country's Supreme Defense Council hasn't yet decided whether to launch a single large offensive or a series of limited thrusts.
This source says Iranian field commanders have voiced concern over the ability Iraqis have shown in the past to rush reinforcment troops to the battlefield. Iranian commanders would thus prefer a series of simultaneous pushes to deter the Iraqis.
``The Iranian commanders have realized how difficult it is to wage a battle without a good Air Force, whose primary task is to disrupt the enemy's supply lines,'' comments one NATO intelligence officer. ``I don't see how they will win the war with their skinny Air Force . . . [which] has been recently further weakened by defections of pilots.'' Gen. Vernon Walters, US ambassador to the UN, says: ``If the Iranians pierce the Iraqi lines, they will advance 12 miles and then run out of gas and ammunitions.'' But one European ambassador in Baghdad questions whether ``this is not wishful thinking.''
These fears are fueled by Iran's apparently successful attempts to get the military hardware it needs. Western sources say China has now emerged as Iran's main arms supplier. Deliveries are said to include ground-to-air missiles. Both countries deny such deals.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.