Iran's successes against Iraq in its latest offensive in the Gulf war have Arab governments searching for some counterweight to prevent an outright Iranian victory over Iraq.
(The only exceptions to this are the governments of Syria and Libya, who support Iran.)
The Iranians have pushed the Iraqis back from the territory seized when the latter launched the war in September 1980 to positions close to their common border -- except at the southern end of the front. There, the Iraqis still hold Khorramshahr, the important port city on the Shatt al Arab estuary.
But the Iranians' latest thrust has brought them to the outskirts of the city -- within three miles of it, the Iranians say. The battle for Khorramshahr is apparently about to begin. It remains to be seen whether it will develop into a long siege or whether the Iraqis will be pushed back to the border there, too.
To most other Arabs, neither Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein (a fellow Arab) nor the Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, is particularly attractive. There is no enthusiasm for either one's making himself the dominant figure in the Gulf. Consequently, most Arab governments lived relatively comfortably with the stalemate in the war between the two which prevailed during most of 1981.
But if forced to choose between the two, most of them -- above all the Gulf Arabs -- see Ayatollah Khomeini and his revolutionary fundamentalism as a greater threat than Saddam Hussein's revolutionary secularism. Hence their present worry about a total Iraqi defeat and the consequences for themselves of an Ayatollah Khomeini flushed with victory and set on exporting his disturbing ideology.
The embarrassing thing for them is that the most effective counterweight to the threat of total Iranian victory is Egypt, which most Arab governments have treated as a pariah since the late President Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel.
This has not prevented Egypt from selling spare parts and ammunition to Iraq to help make good losses in the war. Time magazine has reported that Egypt has sent 60 pilots to aid the Iraqi Air Force but Egyptian officials insist no Egyptian military personnel are with the Iraqi armed forces as a result of any Egyptian government initiative or order. (The armed forces of both countries are equipped mainly with Soviet weaponry.) King Hussein of Jordan has allowed his country to be used as a conduit for military supplies to Iraq and has sent Jordanian volunteers to fight at the Iraqis' side.
And Saudi Arabia, with some of the other oil-rich Arab states of the Gulf, have come forward with an estimated $16 to $25 million in financial aid. Yet all this has not saved the forces of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from massive military setbacks in two Iranian offensives this year.
In the first of these offensives in March, Iraqi forces were driven back close to the border from over 700 square miles of Iranian territory they had been holding around Shush southwest of the Iranian city of Dezful.
In the second of the offensives, launched April 30, the Iranians have cleared nearly 400 square miles of Iraqi troops from a bulge they had been holding sothwest of Ahvaz between the Karun River and the border. This has brought them across the Karun to the approaches to Khorramshahr.
It is now clear that Saddam Hussein made two egregious mistakes.
First, he completely miscalculated at the outset when he thought a sharp military blow at revolution-torn Iran would topple Ayatollah Khomeini and allow Iraq to regain total sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab estuary, which Iraq had voluntarily agreed to share with Iran in an agreement made with the late Shah in 1975.
Second, when his initial seizure of Iranian territory was followed by stalemate in the fighting, he failed to maintain nationalist fervor in Iraq at a high pitch and sought to minimize the effect of drawn-out hostilities by ensuring that life went on as usual -- or even better than usual -- away from the front.
As things turned out, in Iran the occupation of Iranian territory by despised Iraqis worked in favor of national unity and a willingness to sacrifice to drive the invader out.
On the Iranian side, the Iraqi invasion hastened the process of reconstruction of the armed forces, left in disarray by the fall of the Shah and the subsequent revolutionary turmoil. It has also expedited effective cooperation between the regulars of the armed forces, the Pasdarans and the Bassij. The Pasdarans are the Revolutionary Guards, in some ways the militia of the revolutionary clergy; and the Bassij are mainly teen-age high-school volunteers, indoctrinated by the mullahs (with parental consent) to accept suicidal self-sacrifice.
In the second battle for Bostan in February, unarmed Bassij advanced into Iraqi minefields to clear the way for the Army. In March, the Iranians drove donkeys ahead into minefields.
Perhaps trying to take a leaf from the Iranians' book, Saddam Hussein has initiated a crash training program to prepare Iraqi students for service at the front. It was announced in Baghdad May 11 that summer camps would be opened to train students as the main component in a 400,000-man ''popular army.'' The latter would be used to help contain the Iranian offensive.
Simultaneously, the Iraqi government has decided to heighten the sense of national emergency by switching from a ''life-as-usual'' to a crisis approach that demands austerity and belt-tightening.
Meanwhile, other Arab governments are beginning to consider cautiously how better to bring the Egyptian counterweight into play on Iraq's side. A straw in the wind was the arrival in Cairo earlier this week of the first Iraqi commercial airline flight since the Arab boycott of Egypt began.
Even more important were the talks in Cairo this week between Egyptian President Mubarak and Sultan Qaboos of Oman. The latter is one of the three Arab leaders who did not break with Egypt because of the peace treaty with Israel. He is also a member of the Saudi Arabian-sponsored Gulf Cooperation Council -- and thus well-placed to be a go-between. Significantly the Sultan went from Cairo directly to Amman for talks with King Hussein of Jordan, who is the Arab leader most closely committed to support of Saddam Hussein.
Both Mr. Mubarak and the Sultan would like a cease-fire in the Gulf war and a negotiated compromise restoring the status quo and pre-1980 balance of power in the Gulf between Iraq and Iran.
But they are both aware that Ayatollah Khomeini's record is that of a man who rejects compromise when he has the smell of total victory in his nostrils.