THE success of last minute diplomatic efforts to avert war in the Gulf depends in large part on two key points. One is whether or not Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at this stage really wants to find a way to avoid war. The other is whether or not a way can be found for the United States to accept the idea of an international conference to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict without formally linking it to Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait - a concept Washington steadfastly rejects.
On his eleventh-hour mission of quiet diplomacy to Baghdad, United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar took with him the hopes - and specific ideas for negotiation - of governments around the world. European Community Chairman Jacques Poos described him as ``the world's last messenger for peace.''
The secretary-general, deeply disappointed after the failure of his attempt to resolve the crisis last August in Amman, Jordan, has deliberately kept expectations low. He said he had no mandate to negotiate and took with him no specific plan. He was going to listen.
In the aftermath of very public diplomacy and the spelling out of uncompromising positions by US Secretary of State James Baker III and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in Geneva Jan. 9, the UN leader's low-key efforts were seen by many as a relief from the tension that could conceivably lead to a face-saving solution for both sides.
``If Saddam Hussein is to back down in the end, it's much more logical for him to do it to the secretary-general than to the US,'' says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA, who recalls that the UN served similarly as a ``useful fig leaf'' for the Soviet Union's troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
``There's some worry that there's not a very good personal chemistry between the two of them [Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar and Saddam Hussein], but it's got to be a lot better than it is between Hussein and George Bush... This is not a test of wills.''
``The US approach consolidates Saddam Hussein's view that he has no alternative but to fight,'' says a former senior Jordanian official. ``It strengthens his Samson mentality'' - a reference to the Bible character's willingness to take the world down with him when he didn't get his way.
At press time the Iraqi president and UN secretary-general were still meeting.
En route to Baghdad, the UN leader spoke with a number of European and Arab leaders. Between their suggestions and ideas previously floated, five key points of discussion on a settlement have emerged. Most important is Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait and full compliance with all 12 UN Security Council resolutions passed since the Aug. 2 invasion. The international community would guarantee not to attack Iraq if it withdrew, and coalition forces would be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. UN observers would oversee the process and a UN peacekeeping force would be sent to Kuwait. Last - and most controversial - an international conference on the Middle East would be organized at the earliest opportunity once Iraqi troops were out of Kuwait.
The task will be to find ``gentlemen's agreements'' on these points that would go along with implementation of the UN resolutions demanding Iraq's withdrawal, says Adrian Nastase, foreign minister of Romania, who just concluded discussions in Cairo, Damascus, and Amman. He was interviewed in the Jordanian capital where he also met with the secretary-general Friday.
``We are all working on the rational assumption that both sides want to avoid war,'' says Mr. Nastase. ``If this is not the case, nothing will work.''
Emerging as a key issue in these late diplomatic efforts is the delicate question of how to avoid linking Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait to the convening of a Middle East peace conference.
``If the Americans want this problem solved,'' Saddam told a group of Islamic leaders last week, ``they must put Palestine first.'' The US insists that linking the two issues would be to reward aggression. Some observers, however, detected a hint of possible wiggle room when President Bush said in his press conference Saturday that it would depend on how a conference proposal was ``put forward.''
The US has long said that such a conference, properly structured, might be helpful at an appropriate time and approved a Security Council statement to that effect Dec. 20. Israel remains firmly opposed to the idea.
It is the Europeans who have pushed hardest for some give on this point. They stress that the concept in no way originated with Saddam and has longstanding and widespread support in the UN. P'erez de Cu'ellar notes that he has been trying for six or seven years to call a Middle East conference in response to General Assembly resolutions.
European supporters insist that by making the offer contingent on Iraq's complete withdrawal from Kuwait, the question of linkage becomes mute.
``You can't take one element from an area in turmoil and say, `This is all we want to solve,''' says Mr. Nastase. ``A Pandora's box has been opened through a violent act - invasion. That is unacceptable. But the box is open. You can't just put the lid back on.... In a formal sense there can be no linkage, but it's a matter of interpretation.''
Many diplomatic observers believe that to succeed, P'erez de Cu'ellar will have to persuade Saddam that he will have something to gain by withdrawing his forces from Kuwait, possibly including disputes with Kuwait over control of two Gulf islands and the Rumallah oilfield. In the past Saddam has made sudden changes in policy, as when, after the Kuwait invasion, he gave up territory gained during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.
``It's not unusual for Iraq to have a 180-degree change of course,'' says a senior Egyptian official. European Community leaders are expected to continue to press for a diplomatic solution even if P'erez de Cu'ellar fails.