The Soviet Union has made its first move to organize regional cooperation among its friends and clients in the Middle East against the proposed US Rapid Deployment Force for the oil-rich Gulf area.
That is the meaning of the meeting in Aden, South Yemen, this week of the heads of government of Libya (Muammar Qaddafi), South Yemen (Ali Nasser Muhammad), and Ethiopia (Mengistu Haile Mariam).
Admittedly, there is no sign of open Soviet participation in the meeting. But both Ethiopia and South Yemen have friendship treaties with Moscow; and Libya has been cooperating increasingly with the USSR, particularly in cash purchases of Soviet weaponry in excess of Libya's own need.
The Aden meeting is part of the pattern of increased tempo in maneuvering and jockeying to influence the Reagan administrations's formulation of a Middle East policy that began with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Washington earlier this month.
While in Washington, Mr. Sadat (according to an interview with him in the latest issue of the London Sunday Times) handed President Reagan a letter promising "to provide the United States with 'every facility' for emergency action in any future crisis affecting the Arab or Islamic world." The British paper did not say so, but the letter is almost certainly the documentation Mr. Reagan needs before asking Congress to approve funds for developing Air Force and Naval facilities at Ras Banas, on the Egyptian Red Sea Coast.
Egypt is willing to let the US build up stores and equipment at Ras Banas and to admit the Rapid Deployment Force to it in case of an emergency in, say, the Gulf. Egypt is also willing in an emergency to let the US use the big Egyptian air base in the desert at Cairo West.
The US has already negotiated parallel agreements with Kenya, Somalia, and Oman for Rapid Deployment Force access to facilities on their territory. In Kenya, the agreement covers the Indian Ocean port at Mombasa; in Somalia, air and naval facilities at Berbera; and in Oman, the offshore island of Masirah and an airfield at Seeb on the mainland near the southern entrance to the oil tanker bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz.
The three participants in this week's Aden meeting made no public reference to developing a counternetwork of facilities for use by the Soviet Union. But South Yemen President Ali Nassar Muhammad did concede that the conference was aimed at countering military activity in the area by the US and other Western countries. By the Aug. 19 closing session the three countries had signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation.
If such a treaty then came under Soviet patronage, the Russians could hypothetically gain the use of facilities: In Libya, at the Mediterranean port of Benghazi and at air bases inland down the Egyptian-Sudanese border, thereby treatening the entire length of the nile Valley; in Ethiopia, at Dahlak, Massawa , and Aseb on the Eritrean coast toward the southern end of the Red Sea; and in South Yemen, at Aden and on the strategically placed islands of Perim and Socotra.
North of the Gulf, the Russians already have the use of air bases in Afghanistan, as a result of their military presence there since the end of 1979. Two other pieces on the map which could in theory be brought into Soviet strategy further down the line are Syria and Iran. At the moment, however, Syria's own exposed position in the Arab Middle East is likely to keep it out of any immediate Moscow plan to counter US policy in the Gulf -- despite the existing Syrian-Soviet friendship treaty. As for Iran, it would almost certainly need a takeover from Ayatollah Khomeini by pro-Soviet Iranian leftist before open military cooperation between the two countries became possible.
On the US side, the formulation of a Reagan Middle East policy is narrowing down to resolution of two issues:
* The relative immediacy of threats to peace in the area: Is it the long-festering and still unsettled Palestinian questtion? Or is it the Soviet menace, so much closer geographically and military to the Gulf since the fall of the shah and the Russian move into Afghanistan?
* What priorities to give to the suits being pressed on Mr. Reagan by the three countries each claiming for differing reasons to be the most important friend, ally, or patron of the US in th Middle East: Israel, Egypt or Saudi Arabia?
It is proving increasingly difficult to satisfy all three simultaneously.
Mr. Sadat is known to have left Washington grateful for the excellent personal rapport he established with President Reagan but feeling there was still a long way to go in "educating" the latter on the Palestine issue. On this the Saudis, not often is step with Mr. Sadat since Camp David, see eye to eye with him.
The Israelis for their part are resolutely opposed to any strengthening of US relations with Saudi Arabia at their expense. They are even more opposed to any US opening to the Palestinians as recommended by Mr. Sadat and Saudi Crown Prince Fahd.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shows every sign of coming to Washington next month in a self-assertive mood for his talks with Mr. REagan. He refuses to renouce his declared intention to annex the West Bank of the Jordan. He has won a general election at home which many Americans, even in government, had hoped he would lose. And now he has in his pocket Mr. Reagan's decision to resume delivery of US F-15 and F-16 aircraft to Israel without specially demanding of him in return any political price.
The deliveries had been suspended after the Israeli bombing of Irag's nuclear reactor and of downtown Beirut. Apparently, Washington has decided that resumption of delivery of the aircraft is more likely than further arm twisting to get Mr. Begin to Washington next month in as mellow a mood as possible to discuss giving new impetus to the stalled Middle East peace negotiations, presently hung up on the Palestine autonomy issue.
The unconditional release of the F-15s and F-16s to Israel is, however, a major affront of Saudi Arabia. The latter has made a bid for the supply of US aircraft -- specially for five AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) planes. Israel has already mobilized its lobby in the Us Congress to try to block the sale -- which the Reagan administration very much wants to make. At present, the lobby apparently has enough votes to prevent the Saudis getting the planes. There ar suggestions that Mr. Reagan hopes release of the F-15s and F- 16s to Israel might soften the latter's attitudes on letting Saudi Arabia get the AWACS planes. But those who know Mr. Begin expect him to continue to play hardball and use the pro-Israeli lobby in the US to continue to block the sale.
The Saudis are likely to make the AWACS purchase a crucial issue of US faith and goodwill. If the Reagan administration finds itself unable to counter Israeli pressure to deliver the planes, US-Saudi relations -- ever important because of oil and money -- could be expected to take an ugly turn.