What Lurks in the Middle East

THOUGH the United States and its allies have vanquished the power of Iraq, formidable Middle East troublemakers remain. High on the list: Iran, Syria, Libya. Iran is currently of most concern to the US, and was the object of a pointed warning from President Bush last week. Iran, he said, "must not and should not try to annex any of the territory of Iraq."

Iran is a conundrum in a number of ways for Washington. On the one hand, Bush has clearly extended a blessing to opposition groups in Iraq who would topple Saddam Hussein. But that blessing does not extend to pro-Iranian Shiites who might split off parts of Iraq to form a state allied with, or even part of, Iran. As one Middle East expert says: "The United States didn't fight a war in the Gulf to see another Islamic fundamentalist state set up."

Another problem: At the same time Bush is warning Iran to keep hands off Iraq, Washington is hoping that Iran, along with Syria, can be instrumental in releasing American hostages captured in Lebanon.

As it treads this delicate tightrope, the US is trying to assess Iran's intentions toward Iraq. Saddam Hussein, in his weekend radio address, clearly had Iran in mind when he spoke of foreign saboteurs attacking military units and killing officials and civilians in the Basra area. Iraq, he said, had not expected a neighboring nation "to allow their territory to be used as a launching pad for such harm and treachery."

For some years, the People's Mojahedin, an Iranian opposition group, has operated against the regime in Tehran from sanctuaries in Iraq. The Mojahedin charge that in recent days, units of Iran's Revolutionary Guards have crossed the border into Iraq and attacked Mojahedin bases and personnel.

Mojahedin spokesmen say there has been a substantial military buildup on the Iranian side of the border and that Iran's President Hashemi Rafsanjani himself visited the border area between March 13 and 16 to inspect preparations before presiding over a meeting of Iran's National Security Council, at which plans for the future were presumably formulated.

A Mojahedin spokesman in Washington told me there has been at least one Iranian helicopter operation into Iraqi territory.

The Mojahedin offer a substantial amount of detailed information backing up their claims, culled, they say, from intercepts of Iranian radio communications, plus the observation of their own troops, plus documentation from Tehran.

If their claims are correct, the question is: Are the Iranians simply using the present confusion in Iraq to attempt to knock out the opposition Mojahedin, or are they also seeking to establish an Iranian presence in the Iraqi borderlands? The Mojahedin argue that the Iranians are doing both, and that the second objective would mean the establishment of an Islamic fundamentalist state to which the US is opposed.

Syria is another country about which the US should remain extremely cautious. President Hafez al-Assad sent Syrian troops to the Gulf to oppose Iraq and as a consequence has received tangible rewards from Saudi Arabia and the US. Secretary of State James Baker says he finds a new and potentially constructive mood in the Syrian capital of Damascus. But those of us exposed to long sessions with Mr. Assad remember his tirades against Israel, and his protestations that Syria is the rightful occupier of chun ks of Lebanon. Amid the peace talk, Syria is acquiring new Scud missiles from North Korea which will do nothing to lessen Israeli concerns.

Finally, Libya remains a malevolent player in Middle East and world politics. Chastened by the 1986 American attack on his country in retaliation for terrorism, and presumably impressed by the speedy American suppression of Iraq, President Qaddafi has lately been less voluble.

But his quiet support for guerilla groups and dissidents around the world remains unchecked. With Syria apparently seeking respectability, the terrorists who once found haven in Damascus now may operate from Libya.

Iran, Syria, Libya - plus a Palestine Liberation Organization in frustrated disarray after the Gulf war - these are the political explosives the US must defuse or circumnavigate as it picks its delicate path toward peace in the Middle East.

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