WHATEVER the Iraqi response to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's plan to end the Gulf war, his diplomatic effort has already yielded one result. It has revealed the existence of a clear divergence of interests between the Soviet Union and the United States. Soviet officials deny a split with the US over Gulf policy. They back unconditional Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, but unlike the US, seek to ensure the survival of Saddam Hussein's regime.
The gap that has opened up between the two superpowers, which began the Gulf conflict last August in an unprecedented posture of unity, has raised the question here of whether the broader US-Soviet entente is endangered.
``For five or six years, the goal of our foreign policy has been friendly relations with the United States and other Western nations,'' comments Sergei Blagovolin, a senior analyst at the influential Institute of World Economy and International Relations. ``But now I'm not sure that it is so.'' Mr. Blagovolin has been a leading advocate of partnership with the West, even including military cooperation.
Commentary in Red Star, the daily paper of the Soviet Defense Ministry, was even more pointed. ``The interests of the USSR and the USA do not coincide at all,'' wrote Red Star commentator Y. Budkov, referring to Blagovolin and others by name. ``That is why the formation of a united front for us would mean nothing but serving the interests of the USA.''
Such comments are by no means hard to find these days in the Soviet press. The tone of the Communist Party daily Pravda is uniformly critical of American policy, as is Red Star. But even more liberal dailies, such as the government daily Izvestia, sometimes reflect such views.
Izvestia foreign affairs commentator Stanislav Kondrashov argued last week, for example, that the Soviet Union was a ``Eurasian nation'' whose views ``cannot fuse with those of the West, as it was erroneously supposed.'' The Gulf war, he says, is ``the first experience of cooperation with the US in the post-cold-war epoch.'' But the results prove that the US pursues its own aims, ``and from us they want only the confirmation of our loyalty ... which they interpret as they please.''
Liberals such as Blagovolin find disturbing evidence in the Soviet peace initiative of a return to the pro-third-world tilt that was characteristic of Soviet cold war foreign policy. The appearance of Yevgeni Primakov, Mr. Gorbachev's Gulf envoy, in a Soviet television interview Tuesday revealed views ``much closer to Saddam than to the coalition,'' Blagovolin said.
Indeed, speaking confidently of a positive outcome to the Gorbachev peace plan, Mr. Primakov at times sounded like a lawyer for the Iraqi regime. He warned sharply against launching a ground attack at this moment. Such a decision would only be made, he said, by those who want to destroy Saddam's regime and damage Iraq as a nation.
In short, the Soviet initiative aims to find a solution that will allow Saddam and Iraq to remain intact as a force in the region. Although the details of the Soviet plan remain unrevealed at this writing, knowledgable Soviet experts deny that it involves clear linkage of Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait to other conditions.
``The Soviet idea is not linkage, but an invisible package,'' says Vitaly Naumkin, deputy director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, the think tank formerly headed by Primakov. ``We are not speaking about conditions but what will happen after withdrawal. Saddam Hussein has a right to know what will be.''
Mr. Naumkin, speaking Wednesday, before the expected return of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz with a reply to the Soviet plan, claimed to be undisturbed by the apparent US rejection of the terms of the plan. He referred to ``unexpected things'' that may emerge in the hours ahead. But, he admits, ``the problem is whether we accept [Saddam] or not,'' though this difference should not lead to a split.
Like many Soviet officials, the Mideast expert sharply denied the existence of a split with the United States. ``Here everybody understands that Soviet-American relations is bigger than this,'' he said.
That same insistence dominated the appearance of Soviet Foreign Minster Alexander Bessmertnykh before the Soviet parliament on Tuesday. He fairly staunchly defended the US conduct of the Gulf war in the face of a barrage of almost universally anti-American questions from members of parliament. He replied to accusations that the US bombing attacks were exceeding the bounds of the UN resolutions, which Moscow has supported.
``As for civilians, comrades, don't forget about the Kuwaitis,'' he retorted. ``There have been lots of civilian casualties - women, old people. They are also suffering and we must try to protect them as well. I think having stood up for the protection of a small Islamic people against aggression, we have made the right choice.''
Still the hostile tone of the parliament's response accurately reflects the pressure on the Gorbachev government from a right-wing complex of forces, led by the Soyuz (``Unity'') parliamentary group, behind which stands the military and conservative wing of the Communist Party.
From the Baltics crisis to internal economic policies, the right-wing pressure has been reflected in anti-Western statements by Gorbachev government officials. To some degree, the West is used as a scapegoat for those internal difficulties, accused of everything from promoting separatism to flooding the country with illegally gained rubles.