AFTER years of careful tending, a number of perennial peace efforts have begun to bud in midsummer. None of the plans may come to full flower. But for the moment those who thought that ``irrational'' Iran would never yield to demands for a cease-fire and that the ``stubborn'' Soviets would never pull their troops from Afghanistan are having to reexamine their skepticism. So, too, are the many who assumed that Vietnam would never agree to leave Cambodia or that no plan could persuade South Africa to withdraw from Namibia or Cuba from Angola.
The simultaneous blossoming of longtime peace efforts in an arc reaching from southwest Africa past the Gulf to Southeast Asia is part coincidence; it also reflects a new pragmatism, a more realistic assessment of options. Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had vowed never to stop fighting until Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was ousted, finally saw things differently as the war drained Iran's manpower and economy.
The Soviets, in particular, are reexamining the advantages and risks in continued third-world adventurism. Moscow has moved to cut its losses in an Afghan war its people never accepted and may have advised its Angolan, Cuban, and Vietnamese allies that a more relaxed situation in those regions would also be welcome.
It is plodding diplomatic efforts, rather than any quick fix, which have begun to pay off. The United Nations, often criticized as ineffective, is providing the framework.
UN Resolution 598, for instance, is the working base for a Gulf cease-fire. UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, who has tried patiently before to get both sides to talk peace, has suddenly become a vital mediator this week in talks involving the foreign ministers of Iraq and Iran.
United Nations mediator Diego Cordovez played a similarly crucial role in the Afghan-Pakistani talks. Even in the US-sponsored Angola talks, it is UN Resolution 435 that is the working basis for a Namibian settlement. UN peacekeeping forces may be needed in two of the conflicts.
The several sets of peace talks now under way could snag on any number of thorny subjects. Iran, which has taken far more prisoners of war than Iraq has, for instance, claims that many have become Islamic fundamentalists and will not return home. Fixing the borders along or through the vital Shatt al Arab waterway and deciding rules for its use are sure to be difficult.
In the Cambodian peace talks in Indonesia this week - the first to involve both the Hanoi-backed government in Phnom Penh and the opposition coalition - sharp disagreements have surfaced over how power will be shared before an election and over how the brutal Khmer Rouge can be kept from seizing power. In the US-sponsored Angolan talks the easy part, an agreement on principles, is settled. The difficult specifics of troop withdrawal timetables will be tackled in Geneva Aug. 2.
Self-interest determines whether a nation buys into a peace plan. But just having a written formula at hand can help make it easier for disputants to compromise. Iran's efforts to get Security Council condemnation of the mistaken US attack on an Iranian passenger jet did not succeed. Yet in that UN process Tehran realized the extent of its isolation and was frequently urged to accept the UN cease-fire resolution passed last year. That the resolution was there when the moment for choice arrived is a credit to all those who have tried to make the UN a more useful forum.
The Reagan administration deserves credit for keeping a steady presence in the Gulf, bolstering its allies. The decision to send George Bush, former ambassador to the UN, to the Security Council to defend US interests is a measure of the new importance the White House attaches to what is going on there - whatever misgivings one may have about the way Mr. Bush actually presented the US case. Bush's presence was at least a welcome departure from the administration's earlier UN-bashing, and it should be complemented by paying up the more than $500 million the US still owes the UN.
Meantime, all efforts to nurture the fragile peace efforts now in midsummer flower deserve strong support.