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Middle East: Today's hot spot while Europe, Asia stay cool

Instability in the Middle East continued to be the main cause of concern to officials in Wahington and friendly capitals. True, there is also concern about Poland. And the secretary of state of the United States has been in Peking over the past week talking to the Chinese.

But the question about Poland is not whether there will be major change, but how far the Poles can go toward internal freedom without being dragged back into the image of their Soviet overseers. And with China, the only serious question is how fast the Reagan administration will continue to go along the road to Sino-American reconciliation opened up by his three predecessors, Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

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Essentially, Europe and Asia are stable. We all know by now where the acceptable frontiers are. No one is attempting seriously right now to upset the pattern in either of those important parts of the world.

But he Middle East is the cause of more concern than ever.

Over the past week President Reagan's special negotiator for the area, Philip Habib, was back there again shuttling among the capitals, listening for some hint of a possible opening for mediation. But Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, elated over having knocked out Iraq's nuclear reactor, was talking about using his American weapons again to take out those Syrian SAM missiles in Lebanon.

Mr. Begin appears to have helped assure his own reelection in Israel by using force against Iraq and threatening to use it against Syria. But many Western diplomats agree that the price has been to wipe out for the time being any chance of fresh progress toward stability in Israeli-Arab relations. The "middle way," opened up by Camp David, has been blocked by Israeli bombs.

Further Israeli military action in Lebanon would only make matters worse for the peacemakers, though not for Mr. Begin. He seems to thrive on it.

The Middle East is seldom stable, but it has not until recently been the most unstable part of the world. When World War II ended, the greatest uncertainty was about Europe. How much of it would fall under Moscow's control?

By 1960 that issue had been more or less settled. The frontiers of Europe were drawn. Moscow's political push westward was checked by the NATO alliance and the economic revival of Western Europe.

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The focus then moved to the Far East, where the relations among the Soviet Union, China, India, Japan, and the United States were in a process of evolution. This produced one war between China and India; one between the United States, North Korea, and China and Korea; and a follow-up in Vietnam. The last war there was between China and Vietnam.

By now the dust has more or less settled in Asia. China has asserted its independence from the Soviet Union. Japan is one of the world's strongest economies. Moscow is established as the protector of Vietnam against China. India looks to Moscow for help against both Pakistan and China. All of this has settled into a recognizable and remarkably stable pattern.

But the Middle East Blew up just about the time things began to settle down in Asia. Trouble began when the Shah left Iran, on Jan. 16, 1979. Iran is more unsettled now than ever. The Khomeini revolution has not yet run its course. The old order has been liquidated. Islamic fanaticism is in the saddle. The mullahs are demanding the removal of President Bani-Sadr, who for a while was reported in hiding.

The surprising thing is that Iran, although in a state of civil war bordering on anarchy at home, has been able to beat off an attempted invasion from Iraq and has kept a safe distance from Moscow blandishments. The Iraqis invaded Iran in September of last year. They have not succeeded in capturing in single major city in Iran. Nor, surprisingly, have they closed down Iranian oil production.

There is no way of knowing how long the revolutionary phase will last in Iran. The French Revolution took six years to run from the original overthrow of the old regime through the terror to counterrevolution. The worst bloodshed in the French Revolution came in its fifth year. By that time most of the victims were original revolutionaries.

The US was trying this week to inject one element of stability into the otherwise fluid general situation by entering into an agreement to supply arms to Pakistan. But this is likely to arouse Soviet resentment against Pakistan. India is also displeased. It is not certain that American arms to Pakistan will have a stabilizing effect.

The West European allies had hoped to make some progress during the current year in relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. They have been working with Yasser Arafat on a possible arrangement under which the PLO would recognize Israel in return for local autonomy for the Arabs of the occupied territories.

But when the Israelis increased their military operations in Lebanon and then sent their bombs against Iraq's nuclear reactor, those European hopes had to be laid aside. There will have to be a fresh start after the Israeli elect ions, whoever wins.

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