ASK MOST people about the war between Iran

and Iraq and what you hear is that it is a very dangerous affair that could break a lot more valuable crockery but--almost always the but--the two of them, Iran and Iraq, deserve each other. The projected outcome of the war that best reflects the hopes of observers, both in the West and in the two countries' Gulf neighbors, is mutual distraction, though not necessarily mutual collapse: everyone wants them to keep pumping oil. Neither regime enjoys respect or trust among those who know it best. Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad is widely viewed as having cultivated dangerously outsized regional ambitions, the Ayatollah Khomeini's in Tehran as combining a potent subversive capacity with far too much conventional power.

Their war has now gone on for nearly two years-- a span of time reinforcing expectations that neither side would be easily able to knock out the other. Iran, having expelled Iraqi forces from its territory, is now chasing them back into Iraq's. The initial reaction to its pursuit was that Iranian troops were likely to keep on forging briskly ahead, stirring up Shiite fundamentalists and secessionist Kurds as they advanced. But recently, the advantages to Iraq of fighting on its own territory, and the disadvantages to Iran of extending its lines, have become more apparent. As a result, more attention is being attached to Iran's insistence that its purpose is the "defensive" one of pushing Iraq's artillery out of range of Iranian territory. If so, this is gratifying-- though surely we have all learned to receive messages from that quarter with great skepticism.

Certainly the other Gulf states are taking nothing for granted. In their supple, make-a-deal way, they may be easing off their former enthusiastic support for Iraq and taking up a position that Iran would consider less provocative. Perhaps indicatively, the leading Arab promoter of military aid to embattled Iraq is now reported to be Egypt, which sits a long way from the Gulf. Iran's demand for $150 billion in Iraqi war reparations has been countered, according to one account, by an offer of $50 billion in credits from Saudi Arabia, principal bankroller of the earlier Iraqi invasion; that is to say, bargaining is under way. Meanwhile, the Gulf states, while making known their concern to Washington, are turning away from American suggestions of joint maneuvers --the very idea of standing up and being counted as American clients leaves them fluttery.

For the United States, there is a time and a place for an assertive policy but not now, not in the Gulf. The requirement is to read the situation closely and to fit the American response to the peculiar political and psychological contours of a region where the direct application of American power could do more harm than good. The United States has no interest in seeing either side win or lose, only in treading warily and helping edge the region away from further war and upset.