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Why Sandinistas' election plan fails to satisfy US

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According to these sources, ''The Reagan administration can either adopt a military solution or a political solution for relations between our two countries. All present signs, including the US military buildup in Honduras and the increasingly sophisticated regional military exercises being planned, indicate that Washington has opted for the military alternative.''

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Western diplomats believe the US is not interested in a pre-negotiated settlement with the Sandinistas because it fears the Nicaraguans could easily break any such agreement.

US government officials in Washington say one of the underlying difficulties for the US is that the Nicaraguans could easily renege on their concessions - for example, bring back Cuban military advisers or resume arms shipments to Salvador - but once the US disbands the somewhat shaky Nicaraguan counterrevolutionary groups in Honduras, it would be hard to start them up again.

Diplomatic sources say verification is a central problem for Washington. The most important of the US demands is that Nicaragua agree to stop shipping arms and munitions to Salvador. It would be difficult, however, for the US to verify whether the Nicaraguans were living up to any such agreement.

According to a well-informed observer, part of the difficulty is that Nicaragua is sending its arms shipments to El Salvador across the Gulf of Fonseca on small, deep-hulled, motorized canoes, which are hard to spot.

Western sources say the difficulty of verifying shipments to Salvador leads to a Catch-22-like bind. They say US government officials believe that, since it is impossible for US intelligence to be sure whether the Nicaraguans are continuing to aid the guerrillas, they would have to rely on a substantial drop-off of guerrilla activity in El Salvador to prove the Nicaraguans were living up to their bargain.

But, these sources say, since the guerrillas could probably find other ways of getting munitions, this substantial drop-off would probably not take place even if Nicaragua acted in good faith.

''Here,'' an observer said, ''we have a real knot.''

One bright spot in this situation could be the recent Sandinista call for elections. According to a Western diplomat, if the opposition participates, and especially if a figure much respected in the US like Arturo Cruz were to run as a candidate, this would make a substantial difference.

According to this source, ''The degree to which the elections are perceived to be free and democratic'' would have a strong impact in the US. It would help show Sandinista good faith and make it much more difficult for the Reagan administration to maintain its present policies.

Rumors coming from the opposition indicate Mr. Cruz could be arriving here next week. In these accounts, he could perhaps stay at the French Embassy under an arrangement made by the Socialist government of Francois Mitterrand. Such a trip could be an exploration of his possibilities to be a candidate.

It is possible, however, that the elections will not go well in Nicaragua. In that case, the complications created by two political campaigns (in Nicaragua and the US) and the uncertainty of a deteriorating military situation in El Salvador could dim prospects for US-Nicaragua detente.