Arab and European countries are strongly pressuring Iran in hopes of preventing further escalation of the Iran-Iraq war at sea and a spillover of fighting onto the Arab shore of the Gulf. Western European nations who have remained neutral in the war - Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands - have warned they may be forced to join the growing list of countries sending naval ships to the region if Iran steps up action in Gulf waters. And Iran's key ally Syria has threatened to revise its position if Tehran expands its attacks to economic targets in Kuwait, Iraq's ally.
At the same time, prospects have brightened slightly in the UN push to bring about a cease-fire. The Security Council is holding consultations and is expected by today to endorse a trip by the Secretary-General to Tehran and Baghdad, though details remain to be worked out. Iran has signaled its willingness to talk specifically about the UN cease-fire resolution. The trip could take place as early as next week.
The heightened diplomatic pressure on Iran began before Iraq resumed the ``tanker war'' last weekend, but it has continued. Most European countries are also urging Iraq to stop its attacks.
Syria, in a message delivered last month to Iranian President Ali Khamenei, reportedly warned Iran that any attack against Kuwaiti offshore or on-land oil installations would force Syria to withdraw the political support it has been providing to the Islamic Republic since the war began in September 1980.
Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati had days earlier threatened to carry the fighting into Kuwait, and parliamentary speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani had announced Iran would strike at economic facilities of Iraq's Arab allies if the Iraqis resumed their attacks against Iran's economic centers. Iraq resumed those attacks last Saturday.
A senior Syrian diplomat interviewed in Paris explains that Syrian President Hafez Assad is becoming exasperated by the continuation of the war.
Mr. Assad, the diplomat says, is increasingly convinced that the Iranians will refuse any political settlement of the conflict - that they want either a complete military victory or an indefinite continuation of the war that would allow them to consolidate the Islamic regime.
``Between 1984 and 1986 my country organized secret talks in West Germany between high-level Saudi and Iranian officials,'' the Syrian diplomat says. ``At a certain point, the Saudi representative to the conversations asked the Iranians: `If President Saddam Hussein of Iraq is removed from power, would you go to a negotiation table immediately?' `Remove him first, and we'll see what we can do,' replied Iran's ambassador to Syria. The Saudis decided it was not worth continuing the discussion.''
A similar account of the secret talks was given by a Saudi diplomat, quoted this week in the Paris daily Le Monde.
The Syrian diplomat adds that the Syrian government does not agree with Kuwait's support for Iraq nor its policy of re-registering tankers with the United States, but Damascus will never tolerate an extension of the war to Arab states on the Gulf's southern shore.
``Syria's present pressures on Iran are all the more efficient as the Iranian leadership is aware that the removal of Syria's support would immediately be followed by a hardening of attitude by a series of other Arab countries like Algeria, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, which ... have opposed a break in diplomatic relations with Iran.''
Iraq's Arab allies, led by Saudi Arabia, are pressing all Arab countries to break ties with Iran.
Meanwhile, Italian, Dutch and Belgian diplomats have told Iran their countries would send a joint naval force to the Gulf if Iran laid further mines in international shipping lanes. And West German and Belgian diplomats, who are likely to sponsor a resolution on violations of human rights in Iran at the coming UN General Assembly session, have let it be known the text could be diluted if Iran refrains from further escalation in the Gulf war.
Western diplomats in Tehran say Iran is disturbed by the prospect of being singled out as one of the nations with the poorest human rights records, as it could hurt its image among third-word countries.
Belgian, Dutch and Italian diplomats are said to have told Iran their governments are not enthusiastic at the prospect of sending ships to the Gulf. But they said they would feel compelled to do so without delay if Kuwait is attacked, if Iran disrupts shipping lanes in the Gulf of Oman, or renews mining international Gulf waters.
Diplomats in Tehran say Iranian officials understand the message. One diplomat says, ``The Iranians are in such diplomatic isolation that I don't think they will risk setting against themselves three European countries that have until now stuck to a policy of strict neutrality in the Gulf conflict.''
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.