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Israel and Iran pose separate but equal threats to Arabs in Middle East

The two concerns uppermost in the thinking of Arabs in the Middle East today are Israel and Iran.

The former, preeminently Western, threatens an imminent assault on the more radical of Arab elements.

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The latter, undoubtedly Eastern in its religious fervor and Persian character threatens the more moderate Arabs.

Israel May 11 was still deliberating the question of how and when to strike next at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. The Israeli Cabinet was said to be split on just what measures to take to respond to Palestinian shelling of northern Israel early this week. The shelling was in response to Israeli air raids on Sunday.

Perhaps one reason Israel had not yet acted was that desert dust raised by a khamsin wind had reduced visibility in Lebanon -- hampering potential Israeli aerial operations against Palestinian targets.

On the eastern edge of the Arab world May 11 Iran appeared slowly but surely to be pushing Iraq off its territory. Fierce battles were reported around the Irananian port of Khorramshahr, which was captured by the Iraqis 19 months ago. Iraq admitted pulling back forces but still contended it was in ''control of the situation.'' Nevertheless, Iran seems determined to push Iraq out of its territory at all costs.

What Israel ultimately decides to do in Lebanon will most significantly affect the Arab radicals, notably the PLO and Syria. In the event of a step-up in Israeli military operations against Palestinians in Lebanon -- or an outright invasion -- the PLO would be fighting for its very existence.

Moreover, the Damascus regime, committed to aid the PLO by a recently signed mutual defense pact, may find itself drawn into a costly war with Israel.

(Lebanon's foreign minister, Fuad Butros said May 11 a senior American official would visit the Middle East soon in an effort to ease the PLO-Israeli tension in southern Lebanon.)

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Iran's inexorable drive against Iraq, meanwhile, primarily threatens the interests of Arab moderates which support Baghdad: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and now ever more openly, Egypt. If Iran is able to nullify the military gains of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Iraqi government could fall. If Iran crosses into Iraqi territory, Baghdad's Arab allies might be forced to intervene, thus getting drawn into a long, costly conflict.

''There would be grave consequences if the Iranian troops crossed the Iraqi border,'' Egyptian presidential adviser Osama Baz said last week. ''The Iranians are aware of our declared positions.''

For Egypt, the declarations daily show more favoritism toward Iraq. Arab sources believe that a contingent of Egyptian advisers already serves in Iraq. Because of this trend, the Iranian Foreign Ministry May 10 warned Egypt not to get too close to Baghdad and accused Egypt and Oman of being ''agents of the United States and Israel.''

The increasingly long shadows that Israel and Iran are casting militarily over the Arabs raise a number of concerns with Arab intellectuals. These include:

* The danger of an open split between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. The former is found in the moderate Arab countries. The latter found in Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.

* The danger of a split between Arab nationalists and religious fundamentalists. The PLO would be the primary victim if Arab attention were significantly diverted to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Israel would have little worry of a significant pan-Arab response to a war with the PLO.

* The moderates in the Arab world might end up standing on unsound ground by either responding too loudly to the Iranian threat or not loudly enough to the Israeli threat.

Zionism and Muslim fundamentalism today are shaking the Middle East on the ground. To Arabs, that looks like Israel and Iran, each for its own reasons, squeezing the Arabs in between.

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