In its continuing search for a foreign policy breakthrough, Moscow has turned its attention to the Middle East. A Soviet deputy foreign minister is spending this week in the Persian Gulf states and Iraq. Almost simultaneously, Moscow has been trying to talk to Israel, befriend conservative Arab states, and reconcile the splintered Palestinian guerrilla movement. The Soviets are also lobbying hard to be involved in a Mideast peace conference.
These moves are typical of Mikhail Gorbachev's approach to foreign policy - an energetic effort to embrace all aspects of a complicated issue. In the past year, Moscow has tried a similar approach to other problems, notably its role in Afghanistan and relations with China. So far it has had little success. Hopes of an Afghan breakthrough seem distant, and on Monday, a Chinese minister left Moscow after another apparently unfruitful round of bilateral talks.
The Middle East is a daunting challenge. Moscow's main aim there is to be included in an international peace conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. This would establish the Soviets as a major political force in the region.
Moscow also wants to capitalize on the United States' loss of ground over its secret arms sales to Iran and to improve ties to moderate Arab nations.
For the Soviets, the immediate problem in the region is the Iran-Iraq war. The war has put Moscow in an extremely uncomfortable position: Iraq and Syria are Moscow's main Arab allies, but Syria is supporting Iran. The Iranian rockets that have hit Baghdad are Soviet made, and were probably provided by either Syria or Libya. Soviet arms shipments to Iraq - some in the form of aid, some in arms sales probably financed by Saudi Arabia - amount to $2 billion to $3 billion a year, according to Western estimates.
Worst of all for Moscow, the 6-year-old war shows no sign of ending. Recent reports from the Gulf states said that the Soviet visitor, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky, had presented proposals to end the war. But on Tuesday, a Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman denied the reports.
The war worries Moscow for two main reasons:
It brings a major conflict - in which a number of non-Arab countries are involved as arms suppliers - much too close to Soviet territory.
Recent Iranian gains threaten to alter the Mideast balance of power in a direction that Moscow doesn't like.
The US-Iran arms deal has increased these concerns. Though the Soviets enjoyed the US embarrassment over the affair, they are disturbed that Tehran is willing to consider doing business with Washington and Israel. They also believe that the US will continue to try to cultivate ties with Iran in order to contain the Soviets.
In the long term, the Soviets are worried about Islamic fundamentalism spilling across their borders from Iran into the predominantly Muslim southern republics. The Soviets share a border of nearly 1,100 miles with Iran. They worry that the revolutionary zeal of Iranian fundamentalists will intensify when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is gone. They are also concerned that the 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran are being prepared to spearhead a fundamentalist revolution in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the influential weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta alleged that some weapons sent to Iran by the US were intended for the Afghan refugees.
Moscow blames Iran for much Mideast terrorism. Last month, Literaturnaya Gazeta claimed that Terry Waite, the Anglican Church envoy who is missing in Lebanon, was being held in the Iranian Embassy in west Beirut.
At the same time, the Kremlin tries to keep some contacts open with Tehran. Last December, the two nations signed an economic cooperation agreement. And in February, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati discussed the Gulf war and Afghanistan on a visit to Moscow. The Soviet news media made it clear that the two countries had little in common on these issues.
At the same time, Moscow is trying hard to win support for an international conference on the Mideast, to be attended by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. Jordan and Egypt support the idea. Syria, a Soviet ally, opposes such a conference. The Palestine Liberation Organization has in the past opposed the idea, as have the US and Israel's Likud bloc, to which Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir belongs.
In recent months, Washington has expressed support for the idea of an international conference, but been vague on the specifics. Soviet officials say they are still trying to bring around Syria, Israel, and the PLO.
Earlier this month, the Soviets also moved closer to Egypt by rescheduling $3 billion worth of military debts, incurred in the years up to 1972 when Moscow was Egypt's main arms supplier.
Moscow can probably take some credit for this week's reconciliation among Palestinian factions at their meeting in Algiers. It has been trying hard to mediate between the feuding groups. Last November, for example, PLO deputy Khalil Wazir, whose nom de guerre is Abu Jihad, met in Moscow with George Habash, leader of the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Syrian President Hafez Assad arrived here yesterday on a three-day official visit at the invitation of the government. It is expected that Lebanon and Palestinian unity will be the main topics discussed.
Meanwhile, the Soviets are also attempting to open a dialogue with Israel. A meeting between Soviet and Israeli consular officials in Helsinki nine months ago ended prematurely when the Soviets walked out. Contacts did not, however, cease. Early this month, two senior officials of the Soviet Communist Party met Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Rome.
And on Tuesday, the Soviet Foreign Ministry denied reports that a Soviet consular visit to Israel had been canceled. The reports, from the Gulf states, quoted Mr. Petrovsky as saying that the consular trip had been called off because Jerusalem had used the coming trip for propaganda purposes. But the Foreign Ministry spokesman did not say when the team would go to Israel.
Labor members of the Israeli coalition government seem intrigued by the idea of talks with Moscow. But Jerusalem still maintains that it will block Soviet participation in an international peace conference until Moscow resumes diplomatic relations, broken off after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and lets more Soviet Jews emigrate.
There are signals of a change from Moscow on emigration. Last month, about 500 Jews were given permission to leave the Soviet Union - roughly half the total for all of 1986. Resumption of diplomatic relations, however, is a step that Moscow does not yet appear willing to take.