A SIGNIFICANT aspect of Soviet foreign policy in the Mikhail Gorbachev era has been its activism throughout the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the zone of the Arab-Israeli conflict. So far, Soviet activism has paid handsome dividends. In the Persian Gulf during the last two years, the Soviet Union has established diplomatic relations with Oman and the United Arab Emirates. It has increased its diplomatic contacts with Saudi Arabia. And by agreeing to lease three Soviet ships to Kuwait, it has dealt itself forcefully and directly into Persian Gulf politics. So impressive have been the Soviets' success in the Gulf that even some observers in the United States have suggested that it should cooperate with the USSR in defending the security of the Persian Gulf and in trying to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war.
This, in fact, would mean finally accepting the USSR as coequal in the Gulf. Farther to the West, in the zone of Arab-Israeli conflict, the USSR has become a central player in regional politics and the principal focus of attention in efforts to breathe some life into the moribund peace process. The Russians have reentered the Egyptian scene by resolving the issue of Egypt's military debt. They have brokered Palestine Liberation Organization reconciliation in Algiers. They are hard at work to reconcile Syria and the PLO, plus Syria and Iraq.
They have increased their contact with Israel, perhaps with a view to resuming full diplomatic relations. And they have come to be viewed by all parties concerned as an indispensable part of a peace conference on the Middle East conflict.
Two questions therefore arise. Is the USSR on the verge of becoming the new arbiter of events in the Middle East? And does this mean the beginning of a long period of decline in US influence in the region? The latter question arises also because of damage done to US credibility by a series of foiled policies from Lebanon to the Iran arms sale.
THE answer to the first question is no; and to the second, not necessarily, for the following reasons:
The enhanced Soviet presence in the Middle East should be measured against its eclipse from the region during the 1970s and early '80s. Given Soviet power and its proximity to the region, this eclipse was not a natural state of affairs.
It was, however, due to the Soviet's own heavyhandedness, as in Egypt; the success of US policy; and the disastrous effects of the Afghanistan invasion.
Thus, much of what is happening now is the rectification of an abnormal situation under new, more vigorous and flexible Soviet leadership.
Soviet entry into the Gulf also reflects the fact that the smaller states there have matured politically and are seeking a more independent policy, one aspect of which is diplomatic relations with both superpowers.
In short, even if the US were not faced with a credibility problem, the evolution of regional politics and today's more skillful Soviet diplomacy would have led to a greater Soviet presence in the Middle East.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that the Middle East poses no dilemmas or hard policy choices for the Soviets. On the contrary, the USSR faces considerable difficulties in its efforts to reconcile its diverse and often contadictory objectives in the Middle East.
In the context of the Arab-Israeli peace process the USSR faces the dilemma that, in order to become the new peace broker, it has to reestablish diplomatic ties with Israel and abandon its long-held positions regarding the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, the participation of the PLO in a Middle East peace conference and the return of all Arab territories - including the Golan Heights - to the Arabs. But to take these steps would erode the Soviet Union's influence and standing with its Arab friends. Also, because the USSR neither would want, nor can afford financially, to replace the US role as the supporter of Israel to compensate for its losses with the Arabs, it will not risk its Arab alliances by resuming full diplomatic relations with Israel unless the latter drastically alters its positions - an unlikely prospect. Failing such a change in attitude toward Israel, the USSR would be disqualified as an acceptable broker, at least as far as Israel is concerned.
THE USSR also has difficulties in reconciling its objectives in the Arab world. For a long time it has tried to bring together all its friends in the Middle East in some sort of loose coalition, thus far with no success. In fact enmity and disagreements among the USSR's Middle East friends have been a source of concern to it.
The USSR will have difficulty in maintaining its close relations with its radical Arab friends while, at the same time, significantly improving its relations with the moderate Arabs. For example, the PLO reconciliation the Soviets brokered entailed, among other things, the PLO's renunciation of its accord with Jordan and serious tension in its relations with Egypt. The zeal with which the Soviets brokered the reconciliation must have hampered the moderate Arabs' enthusiasm for the USSR. In the Persian Gulf, Soviet efforts to woo the Gulf Arabs and its support for Iraq have cost it in its relations with Iran. In fact, the USSR has the same long-term dilemma regarding Iran as does the West - namely, how to manage the current situation so as to maximize its chances of influencing events in the post-Khomeini era.
The USSR's relations with South Yemen, which has a history of subversion against the Gulf states, are still an irritant in Soviet-Gulf relations. Despite these problems, however, the USSR is back in the Middle East to stay. Yet this new Soviet activism, rather than representing a sea change in the balance of power in Soviet favor, reflects the restoration of an imbalance that had prevailed for more than 10 years.
Soviet activism also appears all the greater because the US has adopted an almost passive posture, especially in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, after nearly 10 years of very active diplomacy. Yet, in many respects, if the US chooses to do so it has diplomatic and financial tools available to it to regain its central position.
The US remains the only country that can effectively influence Israel to adopt a more flexible approach if it chooses to do so. The US is still the main provider of economic assistance and military supplies to the moderate Arab states. And despite its current credibility problem, the US has a much better record of successful peacemaking in the region than does the USSR.
Thus the best way for the US to deal with the new Soviet challenge is to assess it correctly. It should avoid overreacting to it and plunging into risky ventures, as with the reflagging of Kuwaiti ships, or worse, should avoid facilitating further Soviet inroads by accepting the idea of joint US-Soviet management of the Middle East. And finally, the US should develop a realistic and attractive alternative peace program and to promote it vigorously.
Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies.