Shock waves from the bitter armed struggle between Iraq and Iran are reverberating through the neighboring Persian Gulf states, who fear it could upset their own delicate political stability and threaten the oil lifeline to the West that brings them riches or explode into a global confrontation.
Interviews here and by telephone to other Gulf states today indicated that, while careful not to take sides publicly, most of the area's leaders are sympathetic to Iraq rather than to the Islamic revolutionary government of Iran. They see that regime becoming increasingly unstable and threatening the security of the entire region.
There was no indication today that either Iran or Iraq was attempting to carry out threats to seize control of the Strait of Hormuz, the vital 26-mile-wide waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which a considerable portion of the industrailized world's oil supplies passes.
Shipping officals said vessels of the Iranian navy, still the region's most powerful, were hailing vessels passing through the strait to determine their nationality and destination but none had been stopped. Iran yesterday warned ships to stay out of its coastal waters and not to go to Iraq and today Iraq's ambassador to Japan, Mohammed Amin Jaff, was quoted by Japanese officials as saying his country was prepared to take control of the vital strait to guarantee safe passage for foreign tankers.
Probably no other body of water is more critical to the industrialized world's well being than the Persian Gulf, where nearly all of the oil produced in the Middle East is put aboard tankers. The Strait of Hormuz is the only exit from the gulf.
The three-day-old war so far has not spread beyond the northern end of the 550-mile-long gulf, where the Iranians and Iraqi oil facilities virtually abut.
Oil operations in Bahrain, midway down the gulf, and in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other producing countries reportedly were continuing normally today and, according to reports reaching here, tankers were still moving freely through the strait.
Several other tankers, however, remained anchored outside either because they are trying to avoid paying the extremely high war-risk insurance rates set yesterday or because they are bound for Iraqi ports and fear trouble from Iranian gunboats.
Iran has been careful not to interdict shipping directly," one diplomat here said. "If it did, it would convert this into a wider conflict. If it succeeded in stopping the flow of oil from the gulf, the temperatures would definitely increase."
"All over the gulf," said another observer, "people are watching to see whether the strait stays open."
Whle it would be virtally impossible to block the strait, with its 10-mile-wide shipping channel, by sinking ships, the cumbersome supertankers are especially vulnerable to attack by small patrol boats and are unlikely to risk going through if there is any possible danger.
More than 50 tankers a day, carrying almost 40 percent of the noncommunist world's oil supplies, pass in normal times through the strait, which the late shah of Iran once called "the West's jugular vein."
Spot market prices for oil jumped by nearly 10 cents a gallon in some European and U.S. Gulf Coast markets, according to oil analaysts cited by United Press International, but they dropped later and most observers attributed the rise as much to speculative pressures as to genuine increase in the value of oil in a market which still has a significant surplus.
Although less than one-fourth of the oil imported by the United States goes through the Strait of Hormuz, Western Europe gets more than half of its oil by that route and Japan relies on the Persian Gulf for 75 percent of its needs.
Japan has accumlated a stockpile of an estimated 110-days' consumption of oil so it would not be seriously hurt by a brief interruption in shipping.
Nonetheless, Acting Foreign Minister Kiichi Miyazawa issued a statement in Tokyo today saying, "The Japanese government is deeply worried that the conflict between Iran and Iraq is getting severe and that the war is expanding." He called on the two governments to settle the conflict peacefully, preferably through the United Nations.
Fears that the Iranian Navy might attempt to block or mine the strait to halt all shipping rose when the Iranian ambassador to Italy, Nasirol Sadat Salami, told a news conference in Rome today that Iran might do "something big" in the gulf if the country were isolated by the rest of the world in its quarrel with Iraq.
Asked whether Iran might try to block the strait, Salami, a former Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman who moved to Rome two weeks ago, said, "I could not say but it would be something big." Asked about rumors that Iran might try to destroy oil wells in the gulf region, he said, "I don't deny it. Out last card could be very dangerous."
There were no similar threats from Iranian officials in Tehran, however, and no reports here of menacing Iranian moves directed against anyone but Iraq.