AT every stage of the Persian Gulf conflict, the Soviet Union has tried to take a leading role as a mediator. These attempts, even if not successful, have been legitimate considering the Soviet role as a major power and its special interests in an area not far from its southern borders. But the choice of its chief mediator, Yevgeny Primakov, has been less than helpful. Mr. Primakov, born in 1929, spent his childhood in the Caucasus. After graduating in Moscow in oriental studies, he worked for Pravda as a correspondent in Egypt. In 1967 after Nasser's defeat in the Six-Day War, he recommended to his readers and the Soviet government propping up Nasser's regime. In recognition of his efforts, the highest Egyptian order was bestowed on him.
He was called back to Moscow and within a few years became the head of think tanks, a key figure in the field of Soviet media, and a rising star in the top Communist Party leadership. He was also elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences. Whatever Primakov's other achievements, his contributions to Soviet science are not apparent, except perhaps in the field of meteorology.
For Primakov has a sense for atmospheric changes in the political climate. He transferred his allegiance early on from the Brezhnev camp to Gorbachev, who made him a member of the Central Committee and for a while the Presidium. He became one of the precursors of ``new thinking'' in Soviet foreign policy. But unlike Eduard Shevardnadze, Primakov's conversion was less than total. More recently, when he realized that the demand for perestroika and glasnost was waning, he was one of the first to distance h imself from the liberals.
He offered himself as a mediator in the Gulf dispute in view of his Middle Eastern expertise - much to the disquiet of the Soviet Foreign Ministry, which had misgivings about his expertise and political line. This criticism was openly voiced recently in the Soviet press. Watching him on Soviet television, a Soviet observer commented: Why does he have to bow so deeply before that scoundrel Saddam Hussein; if he has to deal with him, why does he not treat him with the icy contempt a British diplomat would display? While Primakov is capable of icy contempt, he has been careful not to display it to his superiors and those of potential use to him.
PRIMAKOV'S line has been consistently to get the best deal for Saddam and his regime. He must have been aware of Saddam's speeches before the Kuwait invasion, in which the Iraqi dictator bragged that within five years he would have nuclear weapons, dictating his policy to the world and replacing the Soviet Union as the other superpower. What induced Primakov to choose an approach that was neither in the long-term interest of peace nor of the Soviet Union?
There have been for some time now two conflicting trends in Soviet policy toward the third world and the Middle East in particular. According to the first school of thought, three decades of material and political support for radical movements have generated few political benefits for Moscow. Many Soviet experts failed to realize that the radicals had considerably greater affinity with fascism than communism and were ineffective except in perpetuating their hold on power. Moscow lost billions of rubles in economic aid and arms supplies that it could ill afford. Hence the conclusion that fishing in Gulf waters was unproductive.
But the other school of thought says that while the Soviet Union has failed in the past, it may succeed in the future. As Iraq's superpower dreams have faded at least for the time being, a new protector will be needed for Arab radicals. Europe or Iran cannot play this role, and therefore the Soviet Union might have a better chance and should make full use of it. It might not be easy to combine this policy with the more important assignment to preserve good relations with the US, but Primakov is trying. Just as in 1967 he advised Nasser and his friends to tone down their more outrageous attacks against the West, if only for tactical reasons.
Furthermore, while the conservative forces in the Soviet Union have no sympathy for Islam or pan-Arabism, they want to keep the empire. The separatist trends among the central Asian republics and in Azerbaijan are bound to grow. Consequently, it is only through close relations with countries such as Iran and Iraq that Moscow leadership will prevent the opening of an anti-Russian ``third front'' (after the Baltics and the Caucasus) in Tashkent and Alma Ata. This kind of argument may not be very well thou ght through, for in the long run the Soviet nationality problems can be solved only inside the union. Yet it is widely believed, and hence the support given to Primakov's missions by a leadership that has become progressively more ``empire minded.''
In the Soviet Foreign Ministry the pro-detente forces are still deeply rooted. But the foreign-policy makers are retreating before the onslaught of the army command which believes that Shevardnadze gave away far too much. The Russian right-wingers feel that it might be too late to recover Eastern Europe. But the Middle East seems to offer new chances, and they are willing to risk deteriorating relations with Washington. The Primakov affair shows that, at present, Soviet Middle Eastern policy is not made in the Soviet Foreign Ministry.