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The downing of Flight 655: reassessing the US Gulf role

THE Reagan administration has done the right thing by its offer of compensation to families of victims of the Iranian plane mistakenly downed by the United States July 3. Polls indicate that most Americans do not approve of such payments. Iran's past and present role in hostage-taking is the reason. Yet the payment is directed to individuals, not to the government; the offer responds positively to recent encouraging diplomatic signs from Iran and helps Iranian moderates better make the case for restraint against extremist demands for retaliation. The move also sets the United States apart from the Soviets, who paid nothing to families of the downed Korean airliner.

The administration should not need to note that the victims are from seven countries to sell its proposal. The President's reminder that Americans are ``a compassionate people'' should be enough.

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In the 11 days since the shootdown, an intense public debate on US Gulf policy has been under way.

The US, as a result of its longtime interest in preserving the region's balance of power and free flow of oil, has been a Gulf presence for several decades. But a less exposed, lower profile is in order. In the 14 months since protection of US flagged shipping began, both the scope of protection offered by the US and the rules of engagement as to who may shoot first have expanded significantly.

Finding ways to end the eight-year Iran-Iraq war must be the priority. The US should shift its focus from obtaining an arms embargo against Tehran to a more imaginative and concerted effort.

New signs of an Iranian willingness to deal have been surfacing. Neither Iran's economy nor its war effort are faring well. For those and other reasons, Iran's reaction to the airline downing has been relatively restrained.

Tehran rarely misses an opportunity to score propaganda points. Some of the usual anti-American rallies have been organized. More harsh rhetoric is expected as the UN Security Council debate on the subject gets under way.

But that same concern for public opinion figures in the decision not to retaliate. Self-preservation is key: Tehran wants no further pounding by an angry US. But a new concern for Iran's diplomatic isolation is also involved. The parliamentary Speaker and armed forces chief, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, notes that world opinion is more likely to favor an Iran that does not strike back.

Recent overtures from Iran aimed at improving US-Iran ties, as disclosed by Secretary of State George Shultz, are a welcome sign. So were last month's decisions by Iran to name an ambassador to France and to welcome a group of British legislators to Tehran.

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Iran's attempt to use the airplane incident to try to force the US to take a more neutral position in the Iran-Iraq war is clever strategy. Such a change would make good sense for the US.

Iraq now has the military upper hand in the war and has recently made new efforts to distance itself from US influence. The US should try harder to persuade Iraq to stop attacks on Iranian shipping. If history repeats itself, Iran can then be expected to stop its retaliatory attacks on other shipping in the Gulf.

The sincerity of Iran's February offer of an interim cease-fire in exchange for establishment of a global commission to assess blame for the war's start should be put to the test. Despite ample talk at the UN about such a group, none has been launched.

Some face-saving means for both sides in the Iran-Iraq war must be found to close the conflict. In time the US can then return to a more modest presence in the Gulf, US relations with both Iran and Iraq can improve, and the Vincennes shootdown will take an isolated place in the history books.

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