The Kremlin's publicly declared policy of neutrality in the Iran- Iraq fighting is in trouble. Postponement of a visit to Moscow by Jordan's King Hussein, a strong supporter of Iraq, and persistent reports that Soviet arms are in fact going to both sides underscore the difficulties currently facing Moscow policymakers.
As some in Washington fear, Moscow may still emerge with enhanced influence when the fighting eventually winds down. Tehran under Ayatollah Khomeini is violently anti-American; and Iraq, although loosening its ties with Moscow, still needs Soviet arms and is staunchly opposed to Israel and the Camp David talks. (The Camp David talks remain bogged down, despite the decision to try again in Washington Oct. 14 and 15.)
Yet right now the Kremlin seems to be caught in a web of complex and conflicting diplomatic moves around the fighting -- and it is clearly sensitive to suggestions that it is involved in arms supplies despite its public hands-off statements.
Now King Hussein of Jordan has decided not to come here after all on a visit arranged before the fighting broke out. Word of the decision, described by the Soviets as a mutual one, came after reports that Syrian and Libyan aircraft were ferrying arms to Iran through Soviet airspace. Iraw has broken off diplomatic relations with Syria and Libya (and with North Korea, whom Baghdad claims is also helping Tehran).
King Hussein may simply have thought it more urgent to visit King Khalid of Saudi Arabia, which he has just done. But not to go through with a visit to Moscow, which he last visited in 1976 looking for Soviet air defense rockets, has raised speculation that the monarch is displeased with the Kremlin's attitude toward the fighting.
Meanwhile, reports come in daily that Soviet arms are, in fact, going to both sides.
* An Asian diplomatic source has told this correspondent that "about 100" Soviet T-72 and older T-62 battle tanks were sent to Iraq just before the fighting began. The sources said the tanks were transported by night overland through, ironically, Iranian territory. The report is unverified.
* US officials have raised the prospect that Soviet ships calling at the Jordanian port of Aqaba have unloaded arms for Iraq. Earlier, sources in Beirut told the Associated Press that five ships flying Jordanian or Iraqi flags had docked at Aqaba carrying military cargoes from Soviet stockpiles in Ethiopia and South Yemen.
The Soviet news agency Tass dismissed the Aqaba reports on Oct. 11, calling them "concoctions." A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow, asked about the Aqaba reports, and about planes from Syria and Libya allegedly flying arms to Iran, said simply that many "provocative" reports had been circulated.
Meanwhile, by signing its recent friendship treaty with Iraq's Arab archenemy Syria, Mosdwo is thought to have upset Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein. Conversely, Iran is annoyed with Moscow for refusing to make a public pledge that Soviet arms supplies to Iraq have stopped.
Publicly, the Kremlin strategy is to call for no outside interference, an immediate end to the war, and the start of peace talks.
Pravda Oct. 12 once again denied that the US had any "vital interests" in Gulf and warned the West to stay out. It repeated its criticism of the United States for building up naval forces in the region, and accused Washington of wanting to intervene.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev Oct. 8 sadi flatly the Soviet Union would not mediate in the dispute. Western sources here emphasize what they see as difficulties in the entire situation for the elderly, cautious, conservative, worried men in the ruling Politburo.
Moscow wants to have its diplomatic cake and eat it, too. It wants to stay out of the fighting and concentrate its verbal attacks on Camp David and Israel. It wants to emerge as a friend on both Iran and Iraq. But from here it looks as though that will be difficult to accomplish.
In trying to befriend Syria, Moscow upsets Iraq. In wooing Jordan, it upsets Tehran. The Kremlin retains some leverage in the region -- but the longer the fighting continues, the more the current Soviet position is strained.