Moscow plays a more deft Mideast policy game these days

Gone are the days when Middle Eastern leaders automatically expect the worst from a voraciously expansionist Soviet Union. And this seems just fine with the current Soviet leadership. Mikhail Gorbachev's policies are clearly designed to maximize Moscow's breadth of relationships and influence on all sides of major regional issues. Pragmatism, not ideology, is the guiding principle.

As observed by a moderate Arab intellectual, the Soviet approach to the area has been ``nimble.''

But does this newly found agility really portend increased influence? In the short run, events must be sobering to the Kremlin:

American influence with Israel is undiminished.

Moderate Arabs, though appreciative of Moscow's new style, are basically pro-Western.

A large American naval presence has been invited into the Gulf for the first time.

The Gulf has not been stabilized, as would suit Soviet interests.

Moscow is still condemned for its role in Afghanistan.

In the longer run, judgment is still out. Let us consider three major area crises: the Arab-Israeli conflict; the Iran-Iraq-Gulf problem; and Afghanistan.

On the Arab-Israeli front, the Soviets have been active indeed. They have cautiously re-created a dialogue with Israel; cajoled radical Palestinian organizations to rejoin a unified Palestine movement; consistently championed an international peace conference acceptable to most interested parties; encouraged the ``good behavior'' evidenced by Damascus in recent months; and rescheduled Egypt's crushing debt burden. At the same time, they continue to be the weapons source of the Arab world's most capable military power, Syria.

The net effect of these policies has been to enhance Soviet credibility with almost everyone: its own clients, Arab moderates, and to some extent the liberal wing of Israel's political spectrum.

Against this backdrop of Moscow's activism, the United States has seemed passive at best. It has undertaken no new initiatives toward a settlement since 1982, despite vigorous attempts during the previous decade. Its agreement to an international peace conference has been reluctant. Contact with the Palestinian organizations has been precluded since 1975, and relations with Syria remain highly tentative. At times, a preoccupation with terrorism seems to be Washington's primary policy-driving motivation.

In the Gulf and Iran-Iraq war, Moscow is playing a unique role.

The Soviets have been Iraq's major military supplier since 1982. In April, they quietly agreed to assist the Kuwaitis in transporting their oil on three of its own tankers. In stark contrast to muscular American deployments to the Gulf, the Soviets have won plaudits by their modestly effective and discreet role. Moscow also opened relations with the United Arab Emirates and Oman in 1985.

In contrast with the increasingly shrill US-Iranian confrontation, Moscow has also opened a dialogue with Tehran. Tentative agreements have been made for the export of Iranian oil to the Soviet Union via an existing gas pipeline, and possibly for the establishment of a rail line through Iran to the Gulf from Soviet Central Asia. Some reports have even spoken of a potential treaty of friendship between the two, and diplomatic sources even repeat a rumor that Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's parliamentary speaker, may visit Moscow.

Skeptics note both projects mentioned above are enormously expensive, and not as yet funded. Moreover, deep religious and historical conflicts between the two states would impede any sustained relationship.

The American position may be the right one. In the short run, it has resulted in a reinvigorated relationship with the Gulf Arabs. And the Soviet-Iran linkage may prove superficial. But Moscow could also emerge as the only major power having relations with all sides to this conflict - an enviable position for any aspiring powerbroker.

In South Asia, the Gorbachev regime inherited the Afghanistan quagmire, for which the Soviets have almost no international support. And their opponents, the American-supported mujahideen, are holding their own. Increasingly, the Kremlin regards its commitment as too costly.

But increasing Soviet flexibility is detectable in slow progress at UN-sponsored ``proximity talks'' on the conflict, which include both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Despite recent setbacks in these talks, Moscow's original demand was for a four-year period in which to withdraw their troops has shrunk to 18 months and includes agreement to permit UN observers. The Afghan government has also proclaimed a willingness to negotiate directly with the rebel groups - something Soviet-sponsored regimes in Angola and Nicaragua have refused to do.

Many observers anticipate intensified Soviet attempts to develop greater leverage in Pakistan - the one South Asian country with which it is at serious odds. Some claim Pakistan's ethnic and leftist opposition is already receiving Moscow's encouragement. And overtures toward the current Pakistani government are also likely to increase.

The intent, of course, would be to induce a reduction in support to the Afghan rebels. It would aim at widening Moscow's South Asian influence, and not presage a shift away from the traditionally close Indian-Soviet link.

In summary: Moscow has developed a diplomacy that is a far cry from its old image of inflexible, ideological interference. It is a pragmatic style that aims at developing acceptability and influence on all sides of major regional disputes. Part of this involves adopting middle-ground policies with something for all comers. And part requires exploiting vulnerabilities of other actors in the region.

Washington has yet to adjust to this new Soviet style - and is appearing less than supple in its own policy approaches. Although American status remains intact for now, it runs a danger of becoming the ``heavy.''

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