The gulf war is hardly over and a rush has already begun to supply more and better arms to the Middle East.

So long as there is a flood of petrodollars to pay for them, it is vain to think an arms limitation regime or a multilateral agreement to control arms sales can succeed except in the very short run.What is required is to cut - at the source - arms purchases by governments that are under no domestic restraint as to how they spend the enormous windfalls that come their way.

On a visit to Riyadh just before the land war began, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney confessed astonishment at the size of the Iraqi military machine.

As the war showed, its military leadership is inept, its soldiers mediocre; its industrial and technological base is comparatively insignificant.

Yet Iraq was able to build a large army with vast quantities of modern arms, including weapons of mass destruction.

Iraq's ability to engage in two destructive wars in a decade was due to one thing only, namely the prodigious profits that, in common with other states in OPEC, it extracted from oil consumers after 1973.

After war with Iran broke out in 1980, Iraq benefited from substantial financial help provided by other OPEC states, chiefly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

This enabled it to cover the large military expenditures the war required, despite Iran's destruction of the port of Basra, which interrupted Iraqi oil exports.

In one way or another it was only OPEC that made it possible for Iraq to build a military infrastructure - roads, communications, bunkers - and accumulate its vast arsenal of weapons.

OPEC is an association of sovereign producers. When oil traders are states, it is difficult to compel them to refrain from policies that inhibit free trade.

The OPEC coup of 1973 also meant that the oil business became politicized, involving a vast range of issues between states, most of which have nothing to do with the oil trade.

Sovereign suppliers, apart from extracting an exorbitant price for their oil, obtained political and military advantages. Private businesses are not allowed to spend their profits on tanks, bombers and mis-siles.

The consequences of OPEC have been bad for both consumers and producers - arousing cupidities and creating a cycle of violence that has devastated Iraq, Kuwait and substantial parts of Iran.

The economic, political and military damage is going to prove difficult to undo.

Even now, OPEC is again attempting to rig the market by prescribing limits on production.

Now we hear talk of the United States exerting its newly won power and influence in the Middle East to suggest or even prescribe a level of prices.

Such government management of a market has failed again and again in the cases of other commodities, and it goes against the free-trade principles enshrined in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and championed by the United States.

As the interests of producers and consumers pull in different directions and governments serving various domestic interests are pulled hither and thither, this or that "energy policy" is promoted but, to judge from experience, ultimately to no purpose.

The OPEC nettle has to be grasped, sooner rather than later.

If OPEC producers have been able to use their wealth to purchase military power, America's great military victory over Iraq can also be translated into political power that might exert steady pressure to diminish OPEC's ability to rig the market.

That would deter the accumulation of weapons that increase the temptation, and the fear, of war.

(Elie Kedourie is visiting professor in Columbia University's political science department.)