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UN lift -- don't blow it

The Soviet Union has been dealt a stinging moral rebuke and diplomatic defeat at the United Nations. There can be no doubt in the Kremlin's mind that its brutal course in Afghanistan has aroused the concern and conscience of the world. Even many Latin American, Asian, and African countries that often side with the Russians in the UN cast a vote for the resolution deploring the Soviet intervention and calling for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops. The final vote -- an astonishing 104 to 18 -- stands as a stunning and just indictment of Soviet policy.

While the UN action is a heartening one, it at the same time poses a dilemma for the United States, now juggling two extremely difficult crises. The question is whether the Carter administration will dissipate the moral victory and support it won in the UN vote on Afghanistan by going ahead with economic sanctions Iran in a continuing effort to secure release of the US hostages. The State Department says the US will proceed, in concert with allies, to stop exports to Iran of all goods except food and medicine. There is also talk about moving toward the use of force for the first time by blockading the Persian Gulf. Inasmuch as the Russians vetoed the application of sanctions, the US would of course be acting outside the framework of the UN -- thereby risking the weakness of resorting to a unilateral position when an effort at collective action has failed.

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Beyond the legalities, however, is the matter of whether economic sanctions would actually alter the situation. It is believed that Iran, with its huge oil revenues, could easily replace any embargoed commodities. Experience in the past, moreover, suggests that sanctions might simply serve to bolster Iran's seemingly intransigent position. Such was the case in Rhodesia, for instance, where Ian Smith and the white community simply dug in their heels and long resisted a political settlement. It is not insignificant that Western as well as third-world diplomats who supported the US on the sanction vote say privately that the US made a mistake in forcing the vote. Such views should prompt caution in Washington.

It is hard, of course, to continue urging on President Carter a course of patience. The hostage crisis is well into its third month. Domestic pressures, from the public and presidential candidates to "do something," could begin to mount. Yet we will believe the test of America's "strength" in this instance lies in waiting for the gravity of the events in Afghanistan to impress itself on the controlling Iranian players. The recent visit of the Tehran militants to see Ayatollah Khomeini would seem to indicate that a way out of the stalemate with the US is being sought. Despite recent disappointment, all hope has not disappeared that Iran would settle for a UN- sponsored international panel to air the nation's case against the Shah. Reports from Tehran suggests members of the Revolutionary Council have wearied of the "student" militants and are seeking a solution. Even the expulsion of American newsmen from Iran points in part of a realization that Iran has "lost" its media battle -- the American people did not, as in the case of Vietnam, turn against their government; they in fact rallied to it.

Patiently toughing it out, the Carter administration might also be careful not to misrepresent the situation in Iran in any way. Part of the problem is knowing what the facts are and unless these are fully known it is best to say nothing. Thus, the White House has characterized the Iranian captors as "terrorists" of Marxist bent who have become "the most powerful single political entity in Iran"; it has also said they have "always prevailed" in any confrontation with the Revolutionary Council. Neither statement appears sustainable.

On balance, President Carter has done as well as one might expect under difficult circumstances. He has rallied world support for the US policy of isolating Iran diplomatically. The Russians, in turn, have made it possible to show the third-world nations -- not least of all Iran -- where the real dangers of imperialism and aggression lie. Holding now to a steady course of restraint and letting these new factors operate on the Iranian scene are more likely to bring about a solution than moving precipitately in the direction of sanctions and force. The hostages, after all, are alive -- and that counts for much.


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