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US influence in Mideast wanes, but 'we can't afford to give up'

Both the Persian Gulf war and the broader search for peace in the Middle East are at important turning points, according to experts recently returned from the region, yet American influence in both cases is waning.

In the Gulf, this reflects new military assertiveness by Saudi Arabia, relative stability within Iraq, and potentially serious divisions within Iran, especially between uniformed officers and revolutionary guards loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini.

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Regarding broader Mideast tensions, the diminished United States role relates directly to coming elections in Israel and the unlikely prospect for any government there to relent on such fundamental issues as West Bank settlements and Palestinian autonomy.

Yet, says Robert Neumann, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, ''We don't have the luxury of simply giving up. . . . There is an urgent need to proceed, otherwise the destabilization of the region will continue.''

Ambassador Neumann was one of four panelists speaking at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies Tuesday. The others were Joyce Starr, director of the center's Near East Program; Shireen Hunter, international scholar and lawyer who served in the Iranian Foreign Service before the 1979 revolution; and Frederick Axelgard, Persian Gulf specialist who has served on the US Senate staff.

In general the four do not foresee a major military escalation in the Persian Gulf war nor a cutoff of oil shipments, despite the downing by Saudi pilots of two Iranian jets earlier this week and reports of the bombing of Iranian towns by Iraq.

''The capability of the Iranians to escalate the air war is very limited and the prospects for a land offensive aren't very bright either,'' said Dr. Hunter, who studied at Tehran University. ''More important than that, there are serious internal divisions in Iran, including within the military itself between the uniformed services and the revolutionary guards.''

Iraq appears able to withstand any expected ground attack from Iranian forces , said Mr. Axelgard, who was recently in Baghdad. ''Iraq's political, economic, and military stature appear solid.'' While there appears to be ''no restraint'' on Soviet military support for the Iraqi regime, he added, ''In Baghdad, the rumors of (Soviet SS-21) missile deliveries are just that - rumors.

''There is no commitment nor sustained capability of either Iran or Iraq to cut off oil,'' he said.

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Dr. Starr, who recently had private talks with senior officials of both the ruling Likud and Labor parties in Israel, said whoever wins the election in July will have little inclination or flexibility to make major changes in Israeli policy for the region.

She noted most Israelis (according to recent public opinion polls) favor talks with Jordan's King Hussein, but only a small minority wants to relinquish Israel's settlements on the West Bank or to make other concessions to Palestinian Arabs or their supporters.

If a relatively more moderate Labor Party were able to form a ''national unity government,'' she said, ''it would mean strengthening the government's ability to handle the economic crisis (which includes 300 percent inflation), but a cancelling out of the government's ability to do much in the near future or long term about the peace process.

''The shooting (Monday) of an Israeli diplomat in Egypt,'' Dr. Starr added, ''will reinforce those not disposed to peace talks with Jordan. . . . Israel is caught in a kind of paralysis.''

Mr. Neumann noted the steady growth of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Gulf region ''feeling a mixture of rage and frustration,'' but he said they do not present a direct threat to moderate Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

''Terrorism, yes . . . danger, yes,'' he said. ''But without a decisive victory by Iran, not a major overturning.''

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