``Both the US and the USSR want to restore peace in the [Persian] Gulf. In this area of the world our interests overlap,'' says Vladimir Poliakov, head of the Soviet Foreign Ministry's Middle East department. Mr. Poliakov was chatting informally last week with a few journalists at the Soviet Embassy in Brussels. He had just completed a series of talks with Belgian Foreign Minister Leo Tindemans, who has been asked by his 11 European Community colleagues to explore ways of setting up an international peace conference on the Middle East.
Poliakov sees such a conference as the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israel and the Arab states. ``The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] should be allowed to send its own delegation to the conference,'' he said. Israeli officials have refused to negotiate with the PLO, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist.
Shifting the conversation to the situation in the Persian Gulf, Poliakov said, ``Iran's intransigency in its war against Iraq worries us a lot.''
``We keep on warning the Iranians, but they're adamant. They just want President [Saddam] Hussein's head. I think difficult days lie ahead in this area of the world.''
On May 20, an Iranian gunboat fired on a Soviet tanker, one of three on lease to Kuwait in an effort to protect Kuwaiti shipping. No Soviet crew members were hurt in the attack, nor in an incident on May 16 - one day before the accidental Iraqi missile attack on the USS Stark - when a Soviet tanker hit a mine off the Kuwaiti coast.
``My country would like the [foreign ministers] of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to meet soon,'' Poliakov said. He said that ``some'' Security Council ambassadors ``would like the resolution to include a threat of military sanctions'' against any side refusing to abide by a cease-fire.
Asked to elaborate, Poliakov said a cease-fire should include a withdrawal of Iranian and Iraqi troops to the international border. ``But,'' he added, ``we would be happy if the Iranians were [willing] to lay down their weapons at their present military positions.'' Iran occupies several portions of Iraqi territory.
For Poliakov, the present insecurity in Gulf waters is a consequence of the Iran-Iraq war and thus should not be dealt with separately. ``Of course we want freedom of navigation but we also would like a Gulf free of nuclear arms and free of foreign military bases. Our general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, has proposed the holding of an international conference on the security in the Indian Ocean and in the Gulf itself.'' (The interview took place before press reports disclosed that $18 million in Soviet arms were sold to Iran last year.)
Harking back to the Middle East peace conference, Poliakov said negotiations between Israel and Arab states should take place at multilateral and bilateral levels. The Security Council's permanent members, he suggested, should guarantee the parley's final resolutions.
Asked how Moscow could participate in Mideast conference without having diplomatic relations with Israel, Poliakov said: ``We severed our relations with Israel in 1967 because of the occupation by Israel of Arab land. The restoration of our ties with Israel will be part of the international conference's negotiation process. Having diplomatic relations with Israel should in no way be a prerequisite.''
Meanwhile, Poliakov added, Soviet and Israeli officials have regular contact. In Washington recently, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres met with Soviet Ambassador Yuri Dubinin, and reportedly discussed Soviet Jewish emigration.
In Poliakov's view, all countries wishing to attend a Mideast peace conference should accept UN Security Council Resolution 242, which enshrines the concept of Israel trading occupied Arab lands for peace, but does not specifically acknowledge a Palestinian right to self-determination. But Poliakov said the PLO should not recognize the resolution, ``since [it] doesn't concern the PLO.'' Moscow would not oppose a ``Jordanian-Palestinian confederation or even an Israeli-Palestinian confederation,'' he said.