A growing conviction in the Arab world that the United States may trade arms to Iran for the release of the 52 American hostages has put Jordan's King Hussein further out on a limb in the Persian Gulf war and has rendered even more difficult his goal of organizing a common Arab stand on divisive regional issues.
That conclusion emerged as a committee of Arab foreign ministers began gatherng here today to lay the groundwork for an Arab summit in Amman late next month -- a meeting that is certain to be even more acrimonious than usual if the Iraqi-Iranian war drags on.
Although it is not even certain that the summit meeting will be held as scheduled, because of differences over the war and the varying levels of support for Iraq, the Jordanian monarch is known to be desperately counting on it to salvage some semblance of the long elusive pan-Arab unity he sought to achieve by jumping so far out front for Iraq.
A U.S.-Iranian deal on the hostages involving the release of frozen Iranian assets by the United States and, possibly, the shipment of spare parts for Iran's war machine could force Hussein even further into Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's camp and exacerbate the divisions in the Arab world.
Jordanian government sources, including those who support and those who are cool toward Hussein's placing himself in the vanguard of Iraq's supporters, say there is little doubt that if the United States begins assisting Iran, then Saddam Hussein will call on the Jordanian king to involve himself even further in supporting the Iraqi side.
[Meanwhile, King Hussein arrived in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad today on an unannounced visit, his second trip there since the war began, Reuter reported.]
So far, Jordan's aid to Iraq has been limited to logistical help such as making airstrips available as refugees for the Iraqi civil air fleet and shipping non-military supplies overland to Iraq from the Jordanian port of Aqaba.
But the king's commitment to Iraq clearly was made with the knowledge that if the tide of the war turned in favor of Iran, Saddam Hussein would seek direct military assistance.
"Personally, I would favor sending troops, equipment, doctors and whatever assistance is needed right now. If ever there was a cause for Arab national unity, this war is it," a palace source said.
The king's attempt to use the gulf War to bolster pan-Arab unity has already failed, in the face of overt Syrian and Libyan support for Iran and less than enthusiastic backing of Iraq by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other gulf states.
What is not certain is how the Arab world in general -- and Jordan in particular -- will react if the United States decides to strongly support the Iranian side following a resolution of the hostage issue.
It is known that Hussein has persistently questioned the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Nicholas Veliotes, about American intentions in recent weeks, and that the United States has consistently warned Jordan that some form of normalization with Iran was not being ruled out as a means of securing the hostages' freedom.
Similarly, the United States is understood to have alerted Saddam Hussein, through indirect channels, of the possiblity that a release of the hostages could be accompanied by a lifting of the embargo on Iran.
But Jordanian sources differed on how strongly Hussein would feel obliged to react if the United States released the spare parts or gave other direct military comfort to Iran.
"He [the king] would have to react. And if Saddam asked him to, he would have to react strongly. He is far too committed now to pull back," one Jordanian source said, adding, "It's going to be very intense around here if those hostages are traded for military help." t
But a palace source suggested that shipment of the spare parts to Iran would make very little difference in the war and that the Jordanian monarch's response would be low key.
"We can complain, of course. But we are hardly big enough or influential enough to do anything more. We've known for a long time how serious the United States is about getting the hostages back," the official said.
With his hopes for a quick Iraqi victory dispelled, along with the opportunity to prove that unified Arab nations can defend the vital Persian Gulf without outside intervention, the king reportedly is anxious to shift the focus back to the narrower Iraq-Iran issue.
It is that topic that is expected to dominate the planned Nov. 25 Arab summit meeting, scheduled to be held in a new convention hall that workmen are feverishly trying to finish.
Jordanian officials said that despite the divisions over the war they expect nearly full participation, including Syrian President Hafez Assad, whose relations with Jordan have steadily worsened as a result of the war.
"Money is involved, and people turn out for money. There is no question the summit will be held," a Jordanian official said.
The foreign ministers meeting here this week represent Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Palestine Liberation Organization.