THERE is an opportunity in the Persian Gulf which must not be missed. The Iran-Iraq war has ground on for seven years this month. Huge numbers of young men have been poured into its maw; hundreds of thousands have been killed, maimed, wounded. National treasuries have been drained; proper development reversed. The ancient Persian-Arab feud has been renewed; Shia versus Sunni Muslim animosities stoked up. This waste must end.
Over the next few days a skilled Latin American diplomat, United Nations Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar, will be in Tehran and Baghdad searching for a mutually acceptable exit from the war. Several significant factors are working in his favor.
For the first time in some 20 years, the permanent, veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council have come together on a crucial, mandatory, peacemaking resolution. Back in 1967, it was Resolution 242. This was aimed at sorting out the outcome of that year's Arab-Israeli war and is still the central framework for Middle East peace negotiations including Camp David. Today, it is Resolution 598, passed unanimously in July and intended to provide both the framework and inducement for a Gulf settlement.
UN officials see this resolution, and especially the big-power discussions and cooperation that lie behind it, as a great achievement. All the permanent Security Council members - the United States, the Soviet Union, China (allegedly a major arms supplier to Iran), Britain, and France - are backing Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar's Gulf mission.
There are also some possibly meaningful stirrings in Tehran. Although Iraq was the first to thrust troops across the mutual border in September 1980, it has been Iran that has been up to now the most reluctant to bring the conflict to an end - except on its own, harsh conditions. Recently, however, Tehran's spokesmen seem to have shelved at least one of their most intractable preconditions for peace - the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, suggesting instead that they will leave that to the Iraqi people. UN officials hope that the Iranian mullahs, perhaps under pressures at home for an end to the slaughter and facing growing isolation abroad, are ready for genuine compromise.
If so, they should put aside their own internal power-struggling for long enough to give the Secretary-General the clear assurances he needs to bring about a cease-fire. That, in turn, will enable him to set up, under the Council's resolution, the impartial panel that will promptly look into the origins of the war - an investigation the Iranians have long desired.
There is still a long way to go. Not the least complication will be the formation of yet another UN peace force or corps of international observers, perhaps several thousand-strong, to watch over the troop withdrawal and reestablished borders. But the peoples of the Gulf deserve this opportunity for peace and reconstruction. Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar should not be allowed to return to New York empty-handed.