King Hussein of Jordan has stepped up his support for Iraq in the latter's war with Iran -- at least verbally. Amman radio said Oct. 28 that King Hussein, on his second visit to Baghdad since the Gulf hostilities erupted over a month ago, had "declared his unlimited support for Iraq in its war with Iran and placed his armed forces under the command of the Iraqi leadership."
At first sight this might seem a commitment of Jordanian forces to active participation on Iraq's side in the fight against Iran, but it remains to be seen whether this is, in fact, what the King intends.
His support for Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein is more unequivocal than that of any other Arab leader. He has so far avoided the commitment of either men or materiel to combat. And even now, given the Arab love of rhetoric, King Hussein's latest promise of support may well stop short of deeds.
Until now, his support of President Saddam Hussein has been limited to words and allowing cargoes for Iraq to be unloaded at the Jordanian port of Aqaba and transhipped across Jordan to Iraq. This is no small help for Iraq, since maritime traffic to and from its only outlet to the sea at the port of Basra has been brought to a halt by fighting in and along the Shatt al Arab estuary, at the head of which Basra stands.
Iraq in recent years has provided Jordan with substantial economic aid, some of which was earmarked for development of port facilities at Aqaba and land communications with it. To that extent, the Iraqi leader had a claim on the port's use for transshipment.
At the same time, it should not be overlooked that King Hussein has a record not only as a "survivor" in the Arab world but also as a "plunger" -- to use the terminology of the London weekly, the Economist. He plunged into the Arab- Israeli war of 1967 on the side of Egyptian President Nasser and, as a result, lost the West Bank to the Israelis.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin publicly reminded King Hussein of that particular miscalculation earlier this month with the express intent of warning him against getting too closely involved with Iraq.
Iraq is Israel's chief concern among its potential Arab foes in this fourth decade after Israel's establishment as an independent state, although the two countries have no common border. Jordan lies between them.
Egypt, once perceived by Israel as the biggest threat, has taken itself out of active confrontation since the visit of President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem and the subsequent translation of the Camp David accords into an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.
Syrian President Hafez Assad, who might have moved into the role of Israel's neighbor-enemy No. 1, is too bogged down in Lebanon and too preoccupied with maintaining his personal position at home to be an immediate mortal threat.
Jordan on its own, despite the efficiency of its armed forces, is not a match for Israeli power. But a Jordan merged with Iraq and giving Iraqi forces access to Israel's border would be an entirely different question.
For many months, Israel has been preoccupied with the possibility of Iraq becoming an Arab nuclear power -- with the help of French technology. Outsiders long have speculated that Israel would in the last resort go to almost any lengths to prevent that happening. (Even now, despite vigorous Israeli denials, rumors have not been laid to rest that an air attack on an Iraqi nuclear plant early in the war with Iran was effected by Israeli, not Iranian, planes.)
A nuclear Iraq brought to Israel's border through Jordanian connivance would be doubly unacceptable to Israelis.
Thus it would be prudent to bear in mind the possibility of preemptive Israeli action if Israel perceived a threat to its existence arising either in Jordan or on the Israeli-Jordanian border.
King Hussein's deepening of his verbal commitment to Iraq does not necessarily mean such a development at this stage. The timing of his latest Baghdad visit and declaration of support for President Saddam might well be no more than a reaffirmation of his position in the escalating inter-Arab struggle between Syria and Iraq, which is likely to dominate the current Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Jordanian capital, Amman.
The capitals of those two countries, Damascus and Baghdad, have been rival Arab power centers for centuries in the Fertile Crescent stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Jordan is caught geographically between the two, and the two repeatedly have been rivals for Jordan's allegiance.
Syrian President Assad, member of a sect that is an offshoot of Shia Islam, supports Shia Iran in its war with Iraq. Mr. Assad is fresh back from Moscow, where he signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union. King Hussein has just postponed a planned visit to Moscow.
Just what all this portends in the inter-Arab maneuvering unleashed by the Gulf war may not be clear, but one thing is: In the strictly Arab context, Jordan has opted this time for Iraq, not Syria.