Secret American arms shipments, designed to curry favor with the mullahs of Iran, have had an unintended effect: US standing in the Middle East, not high to begin with, has taken a nose dive. A number of Arab countries are now waiting for explanations, reassurances, or even hints of what to expect next from the United States.
So far, they have received precious little, and that has only heightened the sense of bewilderment and, in some cases, betrayal.
``Arab countries may be persuaded that this [arms deal] was a miscalculation,'' says one Arab ambassador. ``But we can't rely on statements. We need signs that the US is serious about stopping arms shipments. That means leaning on Israel to do the same.''
According to a number of Arab diplomats and other Middle East specialists, US standing in the region has unquestionably been damaged. But few analysts expect any major realignments in Arab loyalties as a result.
The reason, as a number of Arab diplomats admit, is while the United States is a far-from-perfect partner, the other forces pulling and tugging at the region - Islamic fundamentalism, Israeli belligerence, and Soviet communism - are also unattractive.
As one Arab diplomat laments, ``No one is credible'' - including the United States.
Another puts it more bluntly. ``The problem is dishonesty,'' he says. ``The US can continue to be a broker, but not an honest broker. Before [the Iran deal], even if the US disagreed with the Arab position, Arab countries could say the US was taking an honest stand. But, clearly, here there is no honesty.''
Many Arab states have no quarrel with stated US goals in Iran: to seek contacts with moderate elements, and to secure the release of American hostages held by pro-Iranian elements. But a number of Arab observers say the initiative was ineptly handled. And they are incensed that the US used weapons as bargaining chips.
``No one questions the right of the US to open a dialogue with a strategically important nation,'' says one senior Arab diplomat. ``Other nations do it; so should the US.''
``But,'' he adds, ``it went too far when the price paid was weapons.''
Some Arab diplomats say they are generally opposed to introducing more weapons into an already volatile region torn by conflict. But they are particularly scornful of arming Iran, a country they view as only slightly less anti-Arab than Israel.
Arming the Persians of Iran against the Arabs of Iraq means ``the life of an Arab is not important to the United States,'' says one diplomat from a moderate Arab state.
Not surprisingly, a number of Arab diplomats believe that Israel was behind the arms deals in the first place, and that the US was merely doing Israel's bidding when it supplied the hardware.
``I'm afraid,'' one says, ``that this [the arms shipments] is the execution of Israeli policy.'' And that perception, in turn, only further undercuts America's position in the region, according to some analysts.
``Public opinion in that part of the world is that any policy that fits Israel's interests will be followed by [the US],'' says another Arab diplomat. ``It creates a large gap between the US and Arab opinion.''
That, in turn, makes matters difficult for moderate Arab states. ``Most countries that have good relations with the US are afraid of public opinion,'' says an Arab source. ``They're afraid to be seen as traitors for dealing with the US.''
The Iranian arms shipments also stoked the fires of even more extreme elements in the region, says another Arab diplomat. ``Some Arabs,'' he explains, ``believe the US wants to use the Israelis to colonize the Middle East.''
Although the episode hardly will enhance the US role in the region, some analysts doubt that it will help the Soviets much, either.
Clearly, American disarray would seem to offer new opportunities for the Soviets. ``If American credibility is damaged, Soviet credibility is automatically gained,'' one Arab ambassador says. ``It creates more tensions for the Soviets to exploit,'' adds another Arab diplomat.
But the Soviet presence in Afghanistan and the Kremlin's treatment of its own Muslim minority prompts many Arab states to keep the Soviet Union at arms length.
``It is impossible for Muslim countries to become communist,'' says one Arab diplomat.
Because of a general distrust of Soviet motives and goals in the region, few analysts expect Moscow's renewed call for a regional peace conference, in which the Soviets would play a key role, to be heeded.
More important, many Arabs are convinced that Iran, in particular, does not want peace but, instead, a military victory over Iraq. And many Arab states, even those who profess neutrality in the war, don't want to see that happen.
That is yet another reason that the US decision to arm Iran seems incomprehensible to many Arab analysts.
``Whoever kills, tortures, humiliates, they get the benefits,'' concludes one Arab ambassador.
``This,'' he says, ``is the lesson'' to be learned from US arms shipments to Iran.