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IRAN-CONTRA FALLOUT. US pursues `containment' of Iran. Goal: support moderate Arabs until US can talk to Iran on acceptable terms

Washington is nearly unanimous that the secret United States initiative toward Iran was seriously flawed and has had severe consequences for US credibility. The US is committed to helping contain Iran and to supporting moderate Gulf Arab states, until Tehran's revolutionary fervor has moderated and/or the Iran-Iraq war is ended.

The challenge remains walking the thin line between deterring Iranian domination of the Gulf and getting involved in a major conflict with that country, which could increase Soviet influence in Tehran and the region.

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For the foreseeable future, the US appears likely to maintain an augmented military presence in the Gulf as part of this containment policy. Simultaneously, Washington says it will pursue diplomatic efforts to end the war.

The failed Iran initiative contributed to the US decision to re-flag Kuwaiti tankers and actively to pursue a diplomatic end to the war.

The US has garnered allied support for protecting Gulf sea lanes and for UN peace efforts. The enlarged US presence has bolstered Gulf Arab states and made it easier for some, such as Saudi Arabia, openly to advocate pressure on Iran to end the war, specialists say.

Arab doubts about US staying power linger and the US presence has reinforced anti-Americanism in Iran, experts say.

Where debate continues in Washington, it is largely over how best to carry out containment and how to judge when Iran is ready to talk with conditions acceptable to the US.

The initial rationale for secret contacts with Iran and arms transfers was twofold: (1)to reestablish ties with a power, potentially dominant in the oil-rich region and strategically situated on Moscow's border, and (2)to seek the liberation of US hostages in Lebanon, most of whom were taken by groups strongly influenced by Iran.

Most Washington specialists still share the first goal - Iran is too important to ignore. But they say Iran's revolution is still too radical, too anti-American, for any serious reconciliation.

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Critical officials who specialize in the Middle East say that the Iran-contra affair played into the hands of Iranians who were seeking arms in order to defeat Iraq but had little interest in rebuilding US ties. The victory of revolutionary Iran over Iraq would be disastrous for US influence in the Muslim world, they add. Iran's influence in the Gulf would become paramount and its revolutionary model legitimized for application elsewhere, they say.

Nevertheless, since Irangate, the administration has consistently sent diplomatic messages that it is ready for a serious, nonpolemical dialogue with Tehran. The responses have not been constructive, senior officials say. The US has also tried to avoid unnecessary clashes with Iran, since such clashes might make eventual reconciliation more difficult.

The quest to liberate US hostages via Iran is today viewed as an unmitigated disaster. Though several Americans were liberated, more Americans were taken. There are now more American hostages in Lebanon than before. US antiterrorism policy was severely undermined. European allies were outraged that Washington had been lecturing them on not dealing with terrorists while at the same time itself trading arms for hostages.

According to Edward Djerejian, senior deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, ``trading arms for hostages was really an aberration of everything that we were saying publicly and, quite frankly, what many thought was the policy privately. That is now admitted to have been a mistake, a serious one.'' He says that, as a result, US credibility in the region ``plunged to an all-time low.'' Gulf countries, specialists say, began to think actively of accommodation with Tehran and with other potential outside allies, i.e., Moscow.

Thus, when Kuwait asked both Moscow and the US to help protect its shipping, Washington policymakers felt they had little choice but to accept.

US Mideast specialists had long favored more US support for Gulf Arabs against growing Iranian intimidation and fervor to spread the Islamic revolution through the oil-rich region. But the strong pro-Israel lobby in the US made military support for Arab Gulf states difficult.

Despite early shortcomings, the reflagging and escort policy has worked reasonably well in demonstrating US resolve to Tehran and the Arabs. The rationale of keeping vital oil lanes open engendered allied support. Thirteen French, nine British, seven Italian, three Belgian, and two Dutch ships are present with 48 or so US ships. Several Gulf states have also enlarged military cooperation with the US.

Serious problems remain. The chances of a clash with Iran remain high. Anti-American fervor has grown in Tehran, Iran-watchers say. Iran is preparing for a winter offensive against Iraq, they add.

The UN peace process remains stalled. Moscow, which US officials say is contributing to slow progress at the UN, is courting Iran. Tehran is playing its Soviet card to counter US pressure. The Soviets stand to gain a lot of influence if they could broker a peace between Iraq, which remains dependent on Soviet arms, and Iran, specialists say.

The challenge is to break the peace process free, while maintaining a peaceful containment of Iran. US officials still see UN arms sanctions against Iran as the step needed now.

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