President Carter's clear call for a trade embargo of Iran has brough an uncertain and muted response from the countries the United States is counting on: its Western European allies and Japan.
Two key countries, France and Japan, appear distinctly unhappy, if not opposed, to the idea of going along with a boycott.
French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing shows every indication of backing off from any kind of cooperative action that would help make the boycott stick. Right now he has presidential elections on his mind and for domestic po tical considerations is reluctant to take a stand that would be interpreted as cozying up to Washington.
Japan, the largest importer of Iranian oil among the Western allies -- it im ports about 10 percent of its oil from Iran -- is veering away from taking eco nomic sanctions. Tokyo feels it is far too dependent on Iranian oil to support the US-inspired boycott.
Europe has long since felt that it, too, had far more to lose from a boycott than the United States.
Canada, Britain, and West Germany are expected to react more favorably to President Carter's decision. Britain's pronounced pro- US stand has been obvious for some time, but the United States is looking to West Germany -- which has much more economic and political clout in the European Community than Britain -- to promote the US position.
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau has responded sympathetically to the plight of the United States, but is still consulting with the allies on the boycott.
As the following reports indicate the response, generally, from major European capitals suggests US allies are not yet jumping into the act of implementing a full trade embargo. Edward Girardet reports from Paris:
It seems doubtful that France will make any rapid, constructive moves in support of the American blockage against Iran. Although some French officials have privately welcomed President Carter's initiative and firmness, which they consider long overdue, the government is expected to tread cautiously before committing itself, if at all.
Analysts feel that if French President Giscard d'Estaing makes any forthright decision, it will bound to be influenced by electoral strategy. Compared to West Germany and Britain. France imports relatively little oil from Iran, but Mr. Giscard D'Estaing cannot appear to be too pro-American in his policies in view of the upcoming 1981 presidential elections.
"Right now Giscard is trying to be more Gaullist than the Gaullists," noted one Western diplomat, "so he can't appear to be at the orders of the American government."
For the past several months, the President has been trying to neutralize his gaullist critics in a bid for a wider spectrum of support from the right.
Although the French are perfectly aware that American sanction will prove less effective without European support, government sources say they consider it unlikely the French President will do anything so drastic as to adopt cooperative measures.
France is known to maintain close contacts with the Iranian government and tends to regard itself as the most obvious mediator to help resolve the crisis.
But Washington's message to the Europeans that they have nothing to gain by hoping to keep open oil supplies with Iran rather than demonstrate Western solidarity, has been interpreted by some French as yet another example of American pressure.
Some French analysts feel that by imposing sactions the United States has entered on a dangerous path. "Twenty years ago," wrote the highly respected Le Monde, "President Eisenhower contributed toward throwing Cuba into the arms of the Soviet Union by imposing rigorous economic sanctions." The appearance of an Iranian form of Castroism would have such consequences for the United States and the West, said the newspaper, that the present reserve among the allies must also be regarded as a form of wariness. Elizabeth Pond reports from Bonn:
The West German government has implied its willingness to take actions in support of the American economic sanctions against Iran. The indications are that it would be very cautious about any American blockade of Iran, however.
At this writing no specific action in support of the American embargo had been decided on by the nine foreign ministers of the European Community (EC) meeting in Lisbon. Diplomats here expect that the West German role in these talks will be to toughen the joint EC response.
The West German government has not gone as far as the British government in declaring its solidarity with the US actions. But to Americans, Bonn's behind-the-scenes role in the EC is more important than West German public rhetoric would be. As one diplomat put it, "The Germans are in and the British are out" of the real EC decisionmaking.
And private contacts and the Aesopian public language used by West Germany so far indicate to American diplomats that West Germany will support concrete action by the EC in the Iranian crisis.
All that has been said publicly so far, in the April 9 West German Cabinet statement, is that "the [West German] Government at no time left any doubt that it would act as a friend and partner of the United States." Government spokesman Armin Gruenewald stressed the word "act" in his press conference after the Cabinet meeting and repeated a pledge from Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's government statement of Jan. 17.
In that statement Mr. Schmidt said that if the US decided to act in consonance with the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Iranian hostage taking, that West Germany would stand by the US even if it meant sacrifices for West Germany.
At this point such sacrifices could reduce West Germany's oil imports by a sizable 10 percent. This is the amount -- 11.5 million tons last year -- that West Germany is importing from Iran. Following announcement of the American sanctions Iran threatened to cut off exports to any that joined in them.
West German exports to Iran are less important, since they dropped to 2.3 billion deutsche marks ($1.2 billion) last year, down two-thirds from the previous year. From the Iranian viewpoint, the greatest impact of any German embargo on exports would probably fall on the projects -- primarily in electricity and other industry -- that German firms are constructing in Iran.
The German sympathy for the embargo now contrasts with Bonn's resistance to an embargo when President Carter first proposed it several months ago. The difference lies partly in better preparation and consultation this time. But it results primarily from the feeling that Mr. Carter was moving too hastily to confrontation before, without having exhausted the possibilities of diplomacy -- and that this time he has exchausted diplomacy beyond any doubt.
The April 9 government statement expressly recognized that "from the first day of the hostage-taking the American government tried through its responsible conduct to avoid the present situation."
West German backing for any US decision to blockade Iran is questionable, however. When asked about this at his press conference Dr. Gruenewald replied only that the government would decide this issue if it arose. In private conversations American diplomats have so far encountered a feeling that such a move would be very risky. Rushworth M. Kidder reports from London:
As yet, there has been no official government response, but one British government spokesman close to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's thinking said, "I think her gut reaction will be, "one has to do the best one can to get the hostage out."
Lest that sound unsupportive, he hastened to recollect her Dec. 17 statement at the White House. "At times like these," she told President Carter, referring to the crisis over the hostages, "you're entitled to look to your friends for support."
That was before the Afghanistan invasion and the ensuing move toward an Olympic boycott. Mrs. Thatcher's quick and favorable response to that boycott demonstrated the sincerity of her "support." It outdistanced her less decisive European allies -- and caused some friction among them.
The question now: Is the American call for a boycott of Iran analogous to the American call for a boycott of the Olympics, and will Britain once again take a lead among European nations in responding?
So far, the British are treading carefully. The lengthy document delivered April 8 by US Ambassador Kingman Brewster is being studied "sympathetically and urgently," says a Foreign Office spokesman.
That unpublished document, similar if not identical to the ones circulated in other European capitals, was described privately by a British diplomat who had seen it as a "substantial" statement of the American position. It details the recent American actions, thanks Britain for her previous support, and sets forth a number of options for future action.
Before responding, Britain has several considerations:
* Oil. Unlike its European allies and Japan, Britain, with its North Sea oil , would not be deeply touched by a shut-off of Iranian crude. In March, it imported only 275,000 tons from Iran -- roughly 3 percent of its needs.
* Trade. Imports from Iran in 1979 totaled $:244 million ($525 million) exports to Iran $:232 million ($499 million) -- considerably below a 1976 peak of $:1.56 billion ($3.35 billion) of import and export trade.
* European relations. Britain may want to move more in concert with its European allies on this issue than it did on the Olympic boycott -- especially with a ticklish EC summit coming up. But unlike the Olympic boycott proposal, this issue was not a great surprise; one government official confirmed that there had been "very, very close contact" between Downing Street and the White House prior to the sanctions announcement.