Events in the Middle East reveal with startling clarity a new political landscape. Dangers abound, and even the possibility of a general war. But there is also at least the slim chance for American diplomacy to shape alignments in a way that promotes both international security and a steady flow of oil.
The major new feature in the landscape is the gathering of radical states around the Iran of Ayatollah Khomeini. The ayatollah is a Moslem of the Shiite sect, and his movements have sought to advance the Shiite cause through the rest of Islam. A natural harmony, as a result, exists between Tehran and the Syrian regime of President Hafez Assad. For President Assad and his chief colleagues are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.
The great majority of Syrians, however, are orthodox, or Sunni Moslems. The Sunnis of Syria have long been in a state of open revolt against the Alawite domination. To reinforce himself at home, President Assad has had to collect allies all over the world. In that spirit, he has entered into partnership with Col. Qaddafi of Libya, signed a friendship treaty with Russia and forged close ties with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the radical regimes in South Yemen and Algeria.
The second new feature on the landscape is the grouping of moderate Arab states around the Iraqi regime of President Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein heads a small clique of Sunni Moslems who rule with an iron fist over a country that is predominantly Shiite in population. To reinforce his internal position, Saddam Hussein has struck alliances with the Sunni leaders of the Arabian peninsula -- notably King Hussein of Jordan and the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. As a rallying cry, Saddam Hussein has proclaimed Arab domination over the Persian Gulf.
The third major feature, of course, is the ongoing peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel. Those negotiations neutralize the only two countries in the area with the stomach and the skill to fight a major war. But that accomplishment is threatened by difficulties on the issue of autonomy for the Palestine Arabs living in areas occupied by Israel.
Out of this caldron of political, religious and international rivalry there has already been brewed one war. Iraq attacked Iran in September in order to assert domination of the Gulf. The fighting continues, and could easily spread.
Military aid is being furnished to Iraq by Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Iranians have twice launched air strikes against border posts in Kuwait. Random shots at the oil fields of the Iranian peninsula, or the sea lanes through which the oil passes, could follow. That would engage the United States -- and probably Russia.
Diplomatically, there has also been Arab aid to Iraq. An Arab summit meeting was organized in Jordan by King Hussein last week with an eye toward isolating Syria as the Arab country that stabbed Iraq in the back. When the Syrians failed to stop the meeting by verbal protest, they mobilized troops on the Jordanian frontier and accused King Hussein of stirring up the internal opposition to the Assad regime. Although the immediate quarrel has been smoothed over, border tension is certain to persist, and incidents could occur.
Amidst all these undoubted dangers, however, there can be traced a path to safety. The starting point is the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. It has, so far at least, been the main stopper in the Middle East -- the reason the Persian Gulf war has not spread. So the U.S. interest is to push the peace-making process and protect it against would-be saboteurs.
At the same time, this country needs to reaffirm its commitment to the defense of the Saudi oil fields. That means a purposeful buildup of American forces in the area with an eye toward a major presence. The final, hard step is to link the Egyptian-Israeli peace process with the defense of the Arabian peninsula. One possibility is to draw King Hussein into the Palestine autonomy talks. But the prior condition for that, and the principal American diplomatic objective now, is a rapprochement between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For once that were achieved, there would be both the minimization of danger to security and an assurance of oil flow.
Following that path to safety is exceedingly difficult. Delicate diplomacy is required to bring Cairo and Riyadh back together. Great skill must be exercised in handling Iran and the hostages without tipping against Iraq and the Saudis. Even then, the strategy may not work. But the present risks are so serious, and the payoff for success so great, that a major effort is justified.