OPEC'S MEETINGS have become a kind of theater in which the world can see the political conflicts being played out among the oil-exporting countries. The war between Iran and Iraq has severely damaged the cartel's ability to set prices, for every issue and every meeting lead back to that central division. For some of these countries, far more than the price of oil is at stake in these meetings. To most of OPEC's members oil simply means a higher standard of living. But for those in the Persian Gulf, oil and the wealth it generates are their only means of self-protection and survival.

In the meeting just ended the key was, as usual, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi attitude toward the Iranians and their perennial demands for higher prices varies over time. It depends on developments in the war and the degree of support and reassurance provided by the United States. Late last year, after the gains by Iran in the war and the revelations that the United States had been covertly sending arms to the Iranians, the Saudis moved quickly to accommodate Iran. That enabled OPEC to raise prices and stabilize them.

But since then the land war has apparently deadlocked, with no recent Iranian gains of significance, and the Gulf has filled with ships of the Western navies conspicuously including the United States'. With that, the Saudis have become markedly less inclined to assist Iran. To the contrary, they are deliberately diminishing the flow of revenues on which Iran depends for arms to keep fighting.

But Iran is apparently doing quite an effective job of casting it as a quarrel between the rich and the poor, with themselves as the revolutionary spokesman of the poorest. The present quotas assign to Saudi Arabia, with its small population, one-fourth of all OPEC's oil income, a point that does not pass unnoticed among the Africans and the Indonesians. Iran was able to argue that it was trying to protect the real price of oil against inflation and the falling American dollar. Instead, the Saudis and their allies have pushed the price lower.

In this country, that has won applause, on grounds that lower oil prices means lower inflation. But it is easy to exaggerate the inflation-killing effects of a modest reduction in oil prices, and if it also means another sharp increase in oil imports, the net benefit to the American economy will be doubtful. It does not help this country to become increasingly dependent on oil from a region in which, as the OPEC meeting has just demonstrated, the enmities now run deeper than ever.