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High Marks

Late, but better. That's our grade for some newly revised Clinton foreign policy aims.

President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright last week widened their exit from the administration's futile Iran containment policy.

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Then Secretary Albright made it clear Mr. Clinton will stick to his policy of dealing with China in a businesslike way on global issues while openly seeking to change its stand on citizens' rights and Tibet.

She sought to nudge Indonesia's President Habibie toward early elections and praised his release of political prisoners.

And she indicated the administration might join South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in loosening sanctions on North Korea.

China remains the top priority. Mr. Clinton has long since abandoned his attempt to change Beijing's behavior by hurling action verbs. His present policy, realism on economics coupled with criticism intended to edge China toward democracy, brings Washington into line with what Chinese dissident leaders themselves urge - if he uses his televised speech to the Chinese people to make America's human rights position clear.

Next, Iran. Ms. Albright suggested the US and Iran take "parallel steps" forward to build mutual confidence. Tehran's immediate reply was the equivalent of "not enough." But Iranian President Khatami's January call for people exchanges has now expanded into talk about political stumbling blocks. Those include (1) Washington's veto of business with Iran and freeze on Iranian assets, and (2) Iranian support for terror groups and moves to acquire nuclear missiles.

Albright and Clinton praised Iran's efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and to end the Afghan war. Ms. Albright also applauded Tehran's promise that it would agree to any settlement Yasser Arafat can strike with Israel. That praise appears to reflect the Clinton administration's growing frustration over the expansionist policies of Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Of course all these US policy statements have to work in the real world. Some may not produce results for years. But we will shortly see China policy in action as Mr. Clinton speaks in China. And it will soon be clear whether Indonesia's Mr. Habibie is ready to take steps to further dismantle crony capitalism and schedule new elections.

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On Iran-US relations, it's Tehran's turn to move. There may be a delay while Iran's reform-minded President Khatami battles reactionary mullahs. But Washington must be ready to end its ban on oil company deals to restore deteriorating Iranian wells. Before long the world may need the oil. And it could certainly use Tehran's cooperation in getting oil and gas out of the landlocked Caspian basin.

US pragmatism toward both ends of Asia is welcome. But it will have to go beyond speeches if it is to change embedded government attitudes.

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