Today, on the seventh anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, both the United States and the Soviet Union are displaying unprecedented interest in the outcome. The change in superpower interest cannot be traced to any dramatic shifts on the war's three land fronts. Iran has entrenched its edge over Iraq in the past year, a main reason for Iraq's escalation of attacks in Gulf waters, the fourth front. Without a negotiated peace, any imminent end, militarily, appears elusive.
Nor is the heightened interest due to the fact that the Gulf war ranks as the longest and bloodiest modern Mideast conflict, having cost at least 500,000 lives, in diplomatic estimates.
Though there have been attempts by both superpowers to follow through on official positions calling for an end to the conflict, neither has pulled out all stops in past years - as some analysts believe they may now be doing.
There are two reasons for the greater involvement, analysts here say.
First, diplomatic cooperation in ending the war is linked to concern in Moscow and Washington about the potential of the ``tanker war'' drawing in one or both superpowers, especially as they focuson disarmament.
The US is more anxious about a cease-fire, which is the one guaranteed way it can withdraw its recently deployed fleet and return to a token and uncontested presence in the Gulf. Without a cease-fire, the US could be forced to remain indefinitely or even get involved in a confrontation with Iran. For Washington, the stakes are higher than ever.
The Soviet Union has long believed that oil was the one cause for which the West would willingly go to war, Soviet experts say. Moscow's vote for a cease-fire in the UN Security Council and its independent negotiations with both Iran and Iraq have been aimed in part at preventing a major escalation.
Second, Moscow wants to avoid any event that might hurt its new Mideast policy, which aims to change the region's longstanding balance of power, State Department and Soviet analysts agree. For strategic reasons, it wants to avoid a situation, such as a US-Iran confrontation, where Arab Gulf states might let the West establish a major military presence. The recent dispatch of warships by five European nations, and a certain amount of Arab cooperation, enhance that possibility.
Rising tensions in Gulf waters come as Moscow is showing some success in building stronger long-term relations in the Middle East. A series of moves reflecting a more vigorous foreign policy since 1985 include:
Opening diplomatic ties with Oman and the United Arab Emirates, both key Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
Launching a tenuous rapprochement with Iran, leading to new economic deals.
Renewing its Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, a euphemism for a military pact, with Iraq.
And, elsewhere in the region, discussing reestablishing relations with Israel after a 20-year break; repairing ties with Egypt; improving Syria's military capability; and helping reunify the fractured Palestine Liberation Organization.
Although the list of successes is growing, Moscow's genuine Arab allies are limited to Syria, Libya, and South Yemen. Of the GCC's six oil-rich monarchies, the Soviets' only solid relations are with Kuwait. Pivotal Saudi Arabia has so far stayed beyond reach.
Indeed, Moscow's higher profile in Kuwait was partly responsible for the US decision to reflag 11 Kuwaiti tankers and deploy warships. The opening gambit was Moscow's leasing of three ships to Kuwait, which has been hurt in the ``tanker war.'' As one analyst says, the US did not want the Soviet Union in ``our'' Gulf.
The difference in motives behind Soviet and US actions underscores a point made by critics of US policy: Soviet policy was well-planned; but the US is, in effect, playing catch-up after the Iran-arms deal hurt its credibility in Arab eyes.
Ironically, the Soviet initiative was in part triggered by Moscow's nervousness over US moves, Soviet specialists say. For the first four years of the war, the Soviet Union had relations with both Iran and Iraq, despite active suppression of the local communist parties by both states. Moscow was also Iraq's biggest arms supplier. The US had relations with neither.
That status quo began to change when the US reestablished diplomatic ties with Iraq in 1984 after a 17-year break and tried rapprochement with Iran in secret arms deals. These steps, added to a longstanding edge on the Arabian Peninsula, might have given the US unprecedented influence in the world's richest oil region.
``Iran, frankly, is a plum,'' a US official says. ``It has at least 40 million customers. It has oil, copper, natural gas and other resources. And it has prime location.''
Both superpowers, he says, eventually want better relations with erratic Iran. Meanwhile, both are trying to prevent the other from doing it first.