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Needed: an Overall Mideast Policy

Key elements are engagement with Iran, unity against Iraq, and candor with Israel's new government

When the election campaign and its opportunistic distortions are over, the United States must at last devise a policy for the Middle East. Fire-brigade sorties of aircraft carrier task forces to the Persian Gulf and an emergency peace process rescue mission in Washington underscore the fact that the US is not acting but reacting.

All parts of the region, from Iran across the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean, are interconnected. Policy cannot separately be parceled out. Three especially dangerous focal points are Iran, Iraq, and Palestine.

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Iran is haunted by the ghost of the American hostage experience. And the brutal bigotry of the present regime, its flagrant resort to state terrorism against opponents abroad, and the bullying and subversion of Arab neighbors make it difficult to deal with. But it should not be impossible. North Korea, a very similar pariah, has been skillfully handled.

Containment and isolation are the absence of policy. Even at that, Iran has not been "contained." It has reached out pragmatically in all directions. Last spring it built a railroad to Turkmenistan, reviving the old Silk Road. It plugs into the Russian rail network and, at its southern end, reaches the harbor of Bandar Addas in the Persian Gulf - giving Iran the first direct connection with the growing former Soviet republics of Central Asia and the latter an outlet to the sea. Representatives of 50 states were on hand to applaud. Iran is the mainspring of a regional economic-cooperation organization encouraging bilateral and imaginative trilateral trade deals.

The D'Amato act

Americans are forbidden to do business with Iran, but no one else is. This year's Iran and Libya Sanctions Act, pushed by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R) of New York, threatens sanctions against any foreign enterprise investing more than $40 million in Iranian or Libyan petroleum or natural gas. The main effect of the D'Amato act has been to infuriate Western friends who resent such secondary boycotts. Turkey recently concluded a $20 billion natural gas pipeline deal with Iran. Moreover, Iran's foreign minister has called Russia an "outstanding strategic asset." And, so much for containment, Washington accuses Iran of smuggling Iraqi oil out to the world market. Containment cannot overthrow the mullahs in Tehran, nor can the ludicrous $18 million authorized by Congress for covert operations.

The European Union had an idea, called critical dialogue, reminiscent of Reagan's "constructive engagement" with South Africa's apartheid regime. This has not worked either. Germany, for instance, most sensitive to Iran's feelings, has been reviled and threatened by Tehran for prosecuting what looks like an open-and-shut case of multiple murder by Iran's security service in Berlin. In June, Iranian secret police burst into the home of the German cultural attach in the Iranian capital, arrested his guests, six Iranian writers, and held him captive in his house under interrogation. Bonn objected strongly. Tehran shrugged it off as a misunderstanding. Not until September did the embarrassed Germans publicly confirm what had happened.

There is no happiness pill for so serious a dilemma. Time and a consistent line are needed. Iran, with a population approaching 70 million, more than the entire Arabian Peninsula, cannot help but be a major factor in the Gulf and the region. The US must aim to have it in the hands of moderate leaders pursuing their people's interests, not revenge against the Great Satan and Zionism. Iran must have an incentive to change - most reasonably, an economic incentive. Iran has wanted to buy Boeing planes and to hire Du Pont's Conoco for oil exploration - overtures vetoed by the White House.

With the D'Amato act, the US really shot itself in the foot. It must be repealed; unless it is, nothing is doable. Following that, American approaches must be public and direct - no phony intermediaries with non-existent "moderates." Iran is a society in flux. There certainly are moderate elements. They must feel it safe to come out in their own time. They would be exceptional, indeed, if they were not drawn to American economic power. At that point, the United States would at last have some leverage to affect Iran's course.

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Keeping Saddam contained

While dealing with Iran is like dealing with the Soviet Union, coping with Iraq is more like squaring off against Hitler. This, too, can only be done with a dedicated coalition - as, specifically, is needed to maintain the United Nations arms-control straitjacket on Iraq. But the coalition shows signs of strain as Turkey, France, Russia, and others are tempted by the profits in Iraq's huge oil reserves, which now lie fallow. The United States must nurture the coalition, stiffen the backbone of the Gulf states, and encourage broader-based, more democratic regimes in the region, thus obviating the need to rush reinforcements to the Gulf whenever Saddam Hussein pushes our button.

The Arabs' state of mind reflects conditions in Palestine. Paralysis gripped the peace process after the narrow electoral victory by Israel's right wing. The United States has a real interest in a secure and flourishing Israel in a stable, progressive Middle East. Shimon Peres saw peace as security, and he saw Israel as a magnet and motor for the economic and political development of its Arab neighbors. Israel as an ideological King Kong does not fit this picture. It is equally hard to see how the most dominant military power in the region since the Roman legions can use security as an excuse for extremism.

Israel is an independent democracy and free to make even so drastic a mistake. But when this turn in Israeli policy became clear more than three months ago, the United States, which gives Israel $3 billion annually as well as all kinds of technical and political help, failed to protest that this mistake also risked severe damage to American interests. It is neither too late nor too soon for Washington to exert its influence in setting things right.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS News, currently writes on world affairs.

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