London — Britain and Western Europe are cautious as they look beyond the release of the American hostages from Iran to a new era of relations between the United States and Europe on one hand and between NATO and the Gulf oil states on the other.
This is a difficult time for predictions. The longstanding hostage issue is solved; a new President has taken over in Washington. Looking ahead at the short-term prospects, sources here are mildly encouraged. But they are considerably more reserved about the long-term future.
There is a feeling in Western Europe that President Reagan so far has sounded like a man who relies too heavily on military strength to solve differences with the Soviet Union. Europeans, who live closer to the Russian bear, agree the threat of force is part of dealing with the Russians. But they also stress the need for flexible diplomacy and continued contacts between East and West.
Detente, many in Europe feel, is not a favor the Americans do for the Russians, to be withdrawn at will. Rather, it is of value in itself.
Europeans, especially the West Germans and the French, are insistent that trade with the Soviets continue as much as possible, while Mr. Reagan may well be asking them for more constraints.
The hostage release in Iran indicates the need, many here believe, for the US and West Europe to work together more closely to protect oil sea lanes against such threats as the Iran- Iraq war and soviet diplomacy.
In the short term, the release of the hostages means an end to European trade sanctions against Iran, imposed last year to support US efforts to free its own citizens. Sources here in London also believed that the release would open the door for the US to begin resupplying Iran with much-needed spare parts to allow the Iranian oil industry to send oil flowing toward Europe, Japan, and the US once again. This would, however, take time as well as depend on the course of the war with Iraq.
Although few here expected any sudden warming in ties between the US and Iran , at least one large obstacle was out of the way. And analysts here believe the more moderate elements within Iran, led by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, appeared to have been strengthened.
The prospect of eventual improvement in ties between Tehran and Washington was certainly real enough to the Soviet Union. Moscow tried to influence Iran away from a hostage deal by saying that the US would attack it later.
The prospect of improved Tehran-Washington ties also worries Iraq. The Iraqi leaders fear that there may be renewed US military sales to Iran as well as Iranian purchases of Western arms with cash unfrozen by the hostage deal.
However, West Europeans appear reluctant to see any unfreezing of military supplies to Iran. Britain, for example, has two specific reasons: caution about the Gulf; and the detention of four British citizens in Iran since last August.
Both reasons stand in the way of normal relations between London and Tehran. Foreign Office spokesmen are wary of predicting wha might happen, but no return to normal diplomatic relations, and certainly no supply of British weaponry, can come before the four British citizens are released.
Britain has refused to supply Iran with spare parts of the modified British Chieftain tanks bought by the Shah and used by the Iranian Army. Britain still holds a L40 million (about $92 million) naval vessel called the Kharg on the Tyneside. It was almost ready to sail when European Community sanctions were imposed last year.
London is indignant at the way a Church of England worker (Jean Waddell), two missionaries (Dr. John Coleman and his wife Audrey), and a businessman (Andrew Pyke), have been detained in Iran since last August.
Allegations of spying have been made against the four. But the Foreign Office here calls the allegations "vague" and says no formal charges have been laid. An Iranian delegation to Britain last November called them "detainees" rather than hostages.
There is little optimism here that release of the Americans will lead to quick release of the four. The two cases are separate, although the four, like the Americans, have been held incommunicado with what the British see as defiance of the Vienna convention.
Britain withdrew its diplomatic staff from Tehran last September, leaving one British diplomat in a British interests section of the Swedish Embassy. He has been denied access to the four.
A representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury who did see Miss Waddell and the Colemans recently says he has been told the three will be released "soon" but concedes he doesn't really know what "soon" means. The representative, Terry Waite, says one obstacle to their release is the administrative chaos in Iran and the lack of a single center of power with which to deal.
Britain is joining other EC members in dropping economic sanctions against Iran after the US hostage release, and will not ask other members to reinstate the sanctions to support the British detainees. But Britain itself will refuse all military aid and reserves its options to continue delaying it until the four are back home and the Gulf war has ended.
In Europe, Denmark and the Netherlands are said to be firmly opposed to European arms sales to Iran. So are West Germany and France, though the French are said to have delivered some arms to Iraq. It is thought, however, that Iran will call on Europe to start selling arms again. For instance, it is expected to try to revive a deal worth L425 million (about $1 billion) for 50 American CH-47 helicopters made by an Italian comp any under license from Bell Helicopter of the US.