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Shoring up US credibility in Mideast seen as antiterrorist tool

The United States can do more than talk tough and bomb Libya to reduce the threat of terrorist attacks against Americans in the Mideast and elsewhere. Middle East specialists point to two areas that hold long-term promise of reducing the level of terrorist violence in the troubled region: improved relations with Iran, and resuming negotiations to achieve an effective Middle East peace process.

Both efforts, experts say, would help shore up American credibility in the Arab and Muslim world and help undercut widespread sympathy among residents of the region for the extremists who carry out anti-American bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations.

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``There is always a wider web of people who passively support the [anti-American] violence - they permit it to go on,'' says Augustus R. Norton, an expert in Shiite militant groups who teaches at the US Military Academy at West Point. ``If we could change the attitude of those people, their willingness to let those acts go on, then there would be a reduction in violence.''

US counterterrorism policy in the Mideast is coming under scrutiny in the wake of reports that members of President Reagan's National Security Council staff conducted secret negotiations with Iran and swapped US spare parts to gain the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon. The hostage deals appear to conflict sharply with US stated policy of not granting concessions to terrorists or the states that sponsor them.

But some Mideast specialists view the development as a positive sign that the administration may be looking for more sophisticated ways to fight terrorism in the Mideast. While they don't think an arms-for-hostage swap is a good idea, they agree in principle with trying to improve relations with Iran.

They also maintain that the administration's hardline approach to terrorism is a reaction to the symptoms of terrorism rather than a treatment of its causes. ``Until we address the roots or causes of terrorism ... we are going to see this cycle simply continue,'' says John L. Esposito, a professor at Holy Cross College and a State Department consultant.

The failure to negotiate a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, close US-Israeli cooperation in the region, and what has been perceived by some in Lebanon as incidents of US aggression there in 1982 and '83, have contributed to a growing perception in the region that the US is hostile to the Arab and Muslim world. As a result, Americans have joined Israelis as prime targets for a growing array of terrorist groups including pro-Iranian Shiites in Lebanon, Syrian-backed Palestinians, and Libyan-financed groups.

``I am convinced that if we were able to have a viable Middle East policy which would project some promise of progress towards peace ... then the [terrorist] recruitment possibility would gradually decline,'' says Robert G. Neumann of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``The perpetrators, the plotters and planners ... would eventually find it harder to get desperate, usually well-educated, young Palestinians willing to die,'' he adds.

Says Michael Hudson of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, ``The younger generation of educated people all across the Arab world is growing up much more instinctively hostile to the US than their parents and certainly their grandparents. They see the US as a bully, as disrespectful of their values and religion, and as obtrusive, and they don't like it.''

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Norton and others who have studied radical groups in the Middle East say the US can do much more in working toward solutions to problems in the region before the problems build into motives for terrorist attack. Broadly speaking, many experts believe the US should take a more impartial role in the region.

``I am not saying that the US or any other Western power should necessarily give in to terrorists. But there are some people who represent causes for which there are actually solutions that the US can do something about,'' Norton says. ``Acting on the causes will lead to a reduction of the incentive to carry out acts of terror and violence.''

According to some observers, the White House's recent covert US-Iranian negotiations over the hostages have helped discourage Iranian support for new terrorist initiatives. They say that as relations with the West improve, Iran will have an increased incentive to rein in its militant forces throughout the Arab world. It will want to hold on to the benefits of Western relations, such as restored economic ties, they say.

``There is no doubt that the Iranians will stop [supporting terrorism]. They are not crazy,'' says Roger Edde, a Maronite Christian politician in Lebanon.

But Mr. Edde adds, ``To really have Iran change course, we need to consider the dynamic of radicalism in Iran. This dynamic is in the heart of the Islamic fundamentalist message when Iran tries to challenge regimes all over the Arab world who are dealing with the West. It is a tremendous tool and they will not give up this political, psychological, and mass-moving tool for any non-substantial new situation,'' such as a military parts deal with the US.

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