WASHINGTON'S Iran-Israel-contra drama has exposed one rarely seen reality. But it has also obscured a lot of other realities. The whirlwind of probes, leaks, and belated investigatory reporting has momentarily stripped the camouflage from the subterranean flow of arms and money that fuels insurgencies and counterinsurgencies from Central America to Angola to the Mideast and Afghanistan. It reminds us that the world of public announcements and moralizing - East and West - is not usually the real world of political and commercial actions. At the same time, Washington's fixation on this suddenly revealed netherworld is causing something approaching political amnesia about a lot of other important matters, among them:
The US budget deficit is still as real as it was before the Iran arms story broke. That deficit is, in fact, likely to be larger than administration forecasts show. The longer major shrinkage is postponed, the bigger will be the burden borne by the next generation.
The US trade deficit has not shrunk as much as the fall of the dollar would normally dictate. Unless congressional leaders turn away from Iran-probing long enough to pay careful attention, Washington may concentrate next year on bashing Japan and overlook the role that maladjusted dollar exchange rates with Korea, Taiwan, and other nations play in keeping the trade gap huge.
Superpower deals of several kinds - arms control, trade, expanded exchanges, not to mention a summit tour of America by Mikhail Gorbachev - are in danger of being left on hold for 2 years or more.
Mr. Gorbachev is also having his troubles, largely missed in Washington. Although many sectors of his economy are showing initial growth after long stagnation, he faces localized power shortages this winter. These may extend beyond dim-outs in houses and factories in parts of the western USSR and Eastern Europe. In any other atmosphere than the present one, Washingon would be ringing with warnings about the apparent restarting of the Chernobyl nuclear power complex before promised safety improvements have been made.
Also obscured is careful examination of what the latest Soviet economic reform moves mean. Gorbachev's compliant Supreme Soviet has approved a law that appears to permit a kind of moonlighting free enterprise. Workers are to be allowed to start small businesses - as long as they are operated after hours, don't use pilfered state supplies, and pay taxes to the state. Those seemingly logical conditions may make this far less of a Chinese-style economic reform than at first it appears to be. Some specialists believe the new law may be only an invitation to bribery of officials by ``second economy'' entrepreneurs to avoid taxes.
Obviously, the new Democratic leadership in both houses of the American Congress will not, and should not, give up getting at the details of the Iran-Israel-contra web. Such exposure will at least make the worldwide second economy of arms-traders and sanctions-avoiders lie low or be more cautious for a while. And it's useful for publics in the West to see how that hidden reality works. In the post-World War II era, the American public has had the veil lifted several times - over manipulation in Washington to benefit Nationalist China, South Vietnam, and now a combination of interests in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Central America.
But shrewd men like Senator Byrd, Congressman Wright, and newly installed White House national-security adviser Frank Carlucci presumably realize that two damaging effects can arise from over-fixation on the mechanics of Colonel North's subterranean foreign policy. One is that Congress and the White House are too long diverted from giving major attention to the budget deficit, trade deficit, and Soviet-American bargaining mentioned above. (Not to mention reform of stock-market manipulation and its effect on American competitiveness.) The second danger is that in examining Colonel North's (and probably CIA Director Casey's) clandestine support for assorted insurgents, we will end in lumping them all together - good or bad. Afghan rebels, contras, Savimbi forces in Angola, Israeli arms merchants, Iran exiles, Iran ``moderates,'' assorted factions in Lebanon, and others may be equated as ``all part of the same system.''
Then it will be much harder for creative diplomats to remind the world of constructive goals in these local struggles. Among those goals: Trying to end the Iran-Iraq war. Moving to create a successful coalition in Lebanon to end the killing and spreading hunger there. Seeking a similar bridge between the warring factions in El Salvador. Pressing for a solution that will move Soviet troops out of Afghanistan. And, central to all these matters, keeping Soviet-American bargaining alive and moving.
Mr. Reagan can help by being more forthright about the whole White House shadow foreign policy. Democratic congressional leaders can help by pursuing the other major subjects next year just as vigorously as they do the Iran affair.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.