Saudi attitude toward Iran show signs of hardening - slightly. Saudis seek to prevent more Iranian gains that could damage Iraqi and Arab morale

In the luxurious palace housing the Saudi Foreign Ministry, Prince Saud al-Faisal offered pointed remarks that some diplomats say are a sign of his country's recent hardening attitude toward Iran. ``The UN Security Council should take concrete measures to force the Iranians to accept a cease-fire in the Gulf war,'' the Prince said in a recent interview. ``The UN Charter allows the Council to take military actions to maintain or restore international peace.''

Such comments, several Western diplomats here say, suggest that Saudi Arabia is shifting away from a somewhat ambivalent policy toward the belligerents in the Iran-Iraq war, mainly a result of unexpected Iranian military successes east of the Iraqi port of Basra. The Saudis' approach, so far, was apparently been based on the assumption that Iranian forces would never be able to cross Iraq's formidable defense lines.

While officially standing firm behind Iraq and providing it with funds to fight the war, the kingdom has maintained rather good relations with the Iranian regime, one European ambassador says. Riyadh sees Iran as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the region, he says. The Saudis also see Iran reemerging as a major regional power, one that it would be a mistake to underestimate or cut themselves off from.

Yet the kingdom is now proposing a UN role. Prince Saud said that, of the five permanent Security Council members, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France have responded positively to the idea of setting up an international peace-keeping force to ensure freedom of navigation in the Gulf area.

But some diplomats here doubt the sincerity of Riyadh's proclaimed desire for a quick end to the war. ``I think,'' a European ambassador says, ``that before asking the Security Council to adopt a tough line, the Saudi government should clarify its own position'' on the war.

One of the ambassador's colleagues comments: ``Saudi Arabia has thus far benefited from the war and would like to see it dragging on indefinitely, with neither side having the upper hand. It discreetly helped [Iran] in 1985 and 1986 when it felt Iran had lost the initiative in the air battle. The Saudis are now getting nervous because they're realizing the Iranians may eventually prevail.''

The seven-year war, the ambassador says, has enabled the kingdom to become a major economic power in the region. ``Saudi Arabia's political influence has been on the rise, too, since it has emerged as the dominant power of the Gulf Cooperation Council.'' In 1981, six states - Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia - formed the council to spur cooperation in several fields, including regional security.

The kingdom is in such an improved economic situation, a European commercial attach'e says, that many Saudi companies are in a good position to help either Iran or Iraq rebuild after the termination of hostilities.

Foreign observers living in Riyadh say there is plenty of evidence the Saudis are still ambivalent toward the war. The kingdom daily sells some 180,000 barrels of oil on behalf of Iraq: the revenues go to Baghdad. At the same time, to placate Tehran, Riyadh has prevented Baghdad from using to full capacity a pipeline running from Iraqi oil fields to a Saudi terminal on the Red Sea.

Also, the kingdom has provided Iran with at least one large cargo of refined oil products. This sale reportedly took place a few weeks after a series of Iraqi air raids seriously damaged Iranian oil refineries.

These observers also contend that Riyadh was aware US arms sales to Iran from the start. Saudi agents, they say, have for years tailed Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi, who reportedly acted as a US-Iran intermediary. When the US-Iran arms affair came to light last November, Riyadh reportedly asked Mr. Khashoggi to stay away from the kingdom until the row died down.

King Fahd is also said to have privately criticized Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as being responsible for the outbreak of the Gulf war and for drawing the entire Arab world into confrontation with Iran. Arab diplomats here say Syria and Algeria would like Riyadh to state publicly that Iraq was the aggressor when it sent troops into Iran in September 1980.

But Saudi fears about Iranian advances toward Basra, Iraq's second largest city, make this unlikely. ``What worries us,'' a Saudi diplomat says, ``is the psychological consequences the loss of [Basra] would have on the morale of the Iraqi Army and the entire Arab world.''

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