The American election and the hostage issue have distracted attention from two smoldering world crises. Yet both these crises, if they cannot be resolved or contained, have within themselves the potential for near-cataclysmic consequences. Indeed, it is only an acute awareness of the dangers on the part of those involved that has so far prevented them from getting out of hand.
The crises center on:
* The supply of oil from the Arab states in the Gulf to the noncommunist industrialized world -- and to the developing world, too.
* The challenge from the workers of Poland to the principle on which Moscow's control of the Soviet empire is based -- the absolute power of the Communist Party over every activity within the state.
The hostage question in Iran has, of course, implicit dangers that could become a threat to peace. Yet in the narrow sense, the hostage issue is a bilateral one between the US and Iran. Its immediate consequences are unlikely to be as far-reaching as things going wrong either on the Arab side of the Gulf or in Poland.
The war between Iran and Iraq, on the other hand, has greatly increased the importance of the other oil producers in the Gulf. For the conflict, now in its seventh week, has effectively taken both Iran and Iraq out of the world market as oil suppliers.
Increased oil production on the part of Saudi Arabia and a steady flow from other states on the Arab side of the Gulf -- together with build-up stocks in hand -- have enabled consumers to compensate for the loss of Iraqi and Iranian oil. Those remaining Gulf producers together pour out through the Strait of Hormuz moe tan half of the noncommunist world's desperately needed oil supplies.
Whichever way the war between Iran and Iraq goes, it has in it the seeds of threats to the stability of the ruling families along the whole length of the Arab side of the Gulf.
A victrious Iraq under the secular Saddam Hussein, comitted to Iraqi primacy in the entire Gulf, would eventually cause problems for Arab traditionalists -- not least for the royal house of Saudi Arabia.
No less challenging would be a victorious Iran, caught up in its Shia Muslim revolution and more intent than ever on promoting subversion through the Shia Muslim communities in Sunni Muslim-run Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Add to this the possibility that either Iran or Iraq, faced with defeat rather than victory, might in desperation seek to widen the war by military action elsewhere in the Gulf.
A complicating element, particularly with Saudi Arabia, is the equivocation of US policy (as most Arabs see it) in the Middle East. US willingness to meet the Saudi request for AWACS planes to help the Saudis monitor activities related to the current Gulf war has not in any way offset Saudi bitterness at President Carter's rejection of the Saudi request for bomb racks for the F-15 jet fighters being bought from the US.
To SAudis and other Arabs this is the latest example of Israeli pressure prevailing in the White House -- and of the Us tendency to risk humiliating the Saudis in the belief that the Saudis have nowhere else but Washington to turn to. If the US acquiesces in yet more Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in the eventual annexation by Israel of the occupied Golan Heights, Saudi disillusionment might well be reflected in retaliatory cutbacks in oil production.
But it is Poland, away in northeast Europe, that is even more immediately threatening. There is a Nov. 12 deadline for selected strike action by the workers if they do not win satisfaction from the Polish Communist Party and government on the bylaws for the promised new free trade unions. The workers want withdrawn the provision imposed on them whereby they expressly recognize the primacy (and thus the control) of the party in union affairs.
The abrupt summoning of the Polish Communist Party leadership to Moscow last week for a one-day briefing reveals how seriously the Soviet Union takes the challenge.
Significantly, the Polish party newspaper has this week gone so far as to suggest that the dissident organization, KOR, which supported the workers in their strike action in the summer, had indirect links with terrorist groups in Western Europe. Admittedly KOR was never central to the workers' protest movement; but the attack on it could be part of the construction of an alibi in advance for any eventual military intervention against the Polish workers -- if it comes to that.