ONE effect of the stepped-up United States activity in the Gulf is a much-improved relationship between the Gulf Arab states and Washington; if this trend continues, US-Arab ties elsewhere in the Middle East could benefit. Granted, the US retaliation this past week against Iran's offshore oil rigs has drawn the strong criticism of both Tehran and Moscow; reportedly Iran plans to send out attack aircraft to hit Western targets.
Yet most neighboring Arab states, supporters of Iraq in the war but eager to avoid provoking Iran, quietly approve of the US role. They view the US military buildup and strike as a sign of commitment to Gulf security from an often unreliable nation closely tied to Israel. Arabs remember the quick US exodus from Lebanon after the Marine massacre there. They were dismayed at the secret US arms sale to Iran.
A new security relationship in which the Arabs more openly and willingly supply US forces with military and intelligence help is emerging. ``It's a very tender new trend,'' insists Paul Jabber, a Middle East expert.
As part of the improved relationship, the oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf expect the US to sell them reasonable amounts of defense equipment. Most want F-16 fighters or similar planes; the smaller states want Stinger antiaircraft missiles.
Israel opposes such sales, arguing that it could too easily become the target of the new weapons. Only under strong administration pressure this fall, and after Maverick missiles were deleted from the package, did Congress reluctantly agree to sell Saudi Arabia a $1 billion package of F-15 replacement fighters.
The Arabs must not assume that Washington will handle the entire Gulf security job for them. They would like the US to pledge that it will not allow Iran to win its war against Iraq. Gulf Arabs worry that an Iranian victory could mean the spread of Tehran's brand of Islamic revolution and Iran's domination of the region's oil price and production policies.
The US, still formally neutral in the war and favoring a solution giving neither side the victory, cannot yield to the Arab request for insurance against an Iran win. Gulf Arabs have a need to protect themselves; as long as the US sells arms, Washington should be expected to help.
At the Nov. 8 Arab League summit in Jordan, the Saudis hope to gain united Arab censure of Iran for refusing to accept a UN-ordered cease-fire. The Saudis have urged their allies to improve ties with Egypt over the last year and may encourage Egypt's readmission to the Arab League. Syria, one of Iran's few Arab allies and a nation still critical of Egypt's ties with Israel, will likely try to block both moves.
US-Arab relations in the Middle East arena of the Arab-Israeli conflict have been much more strained than those in the Gulf. The US has dragged its feet on peace efforts, offering only lukewarm endorsement of the global conference favored by most Arabs and pushed strongly by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. The recent slight improvement in US-Syrian ties, marked by the return of the US ambassador to Damascus, helps. So does the visit last week of Secretary of State George Shultz with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Secretary Shultz's suggestion of a new format for peace talks - bilateral negotiations under the supervision of the US and Soviet Union, a compromise apparently suggested by Israel's Mr. Peres - gives both sides a new variation to consider. The issue is sure to come up at the Arab League meeting.
Any new era in US-Arab relations, however focused on the Gulf, requires a resolution of the Arab-Israeli problem. Failure to resolve that conflict casts a shadow over the improved US-Arab relationship in the Gulf.