`Old hand' on Iran-Iraq conflict takes over Geneva negotiations. Jan Eliasson, Sweden's UN ambassador, has carried on behind-scenes effort since 1980

United Nations Ambassador Jan Eliasson of Sweden is the troubleshooter charged with turning the uneasy truce between Iraq and Iran into a permanent political settlement. Just eight years ago, when the late Olof Palme was handed the Gulf war challenge by then Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, the Swedish statesman picked Mr. Eliasson as his right-hand man.

Since then, the ambassador said in an interview, ``I have been involved more or less without interruption'' in dealing with the stubborn issue.

So he was a natural choice as Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar's personal representative on the Gulf conflict after the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq went into effect Aug. 20.

Both men went to Geneva for the the latest round of talks between Iran and Iraq that began last Monday. Mr. P'erez de Cu'ellar returned to New York over the weekend, leaving Eliasson in charge.

It's likely that from now on, the Swedish ambassador will conduct most or all of the shuttle diplomacy between New York, Geneva, Teheran, and Baghdad.

The scenery will be familiar to him. Between November 1980 and June 1982, he and Palme engaged in ``very intensive'' consultations during half a dozen missions to Teheran and as many to Baghdad, he recalled.

Eliasson said the two negotiators tried to hammer out a comprehensive settlement at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 ``because we knew that in time, it would be more and more difficult. That turned out to be true.''

As an interim measure, they tried to reach piecemeal agreements, such as reducing the level of fighting and freeing 72 ships bottled up in the Shatt al Arab waterway, which flows into the Gulf. Though unsuccessful with the ships, they succeeded in working out an arrangement in June 1984 that neither belligerent would attack civilian populations in border areas. The arrangement broke down in March 1985.

``But we had nine months of calm on the border area, which saved thousands of lives,'' Eliasson said.

Even after Palme became prime minister in the fall of 1982, he retained his position as special representative on the Gulf war although he didn't visit the area again between then and February 1986, when he was shot to death on a Stockholm street.

During those years, most of the work was done in Stockholm by Eliasson and in New York by the Secretary-General and Undersecretary-General Diego C'ordovez (later to negotiate the Geneva accords on Afghanistan).

Recalling the difficulty of trying to negotiate in the middle of a shooting war, the ambassador said he was ``tremendously gratified to see that now the cease-fire is holding.'' He suggested that the truce makes negotiations less difficult.

``In my view,'' he said, ``one of the reasons why we find ourselves discussing the implementation of a [UN Security Council peace] resolution under the conditions of no active warfare is that there has been close coordination between the Security Council and the Secretary-General.''

Eliasson, who presented credentials as Sweden's UN permanent representative only in March, joined the Foreign Service in 1965. Eliasson has been posted to missions in Bonn, Washington, and Paris. He has also held senior posts in the foreign ministry with responsibility for Asian and African affairs. During Palme's administration, he was foreign policy adviser to the prime minister.

Eliasson's political indoctrination began early, when he was preparing for graduation from a Decatur, Indiana, high school as an American Field Service exchange student. The father of his host family, he recalled, was county Democratic chairman.

``Through him,'' he said, ``I met a number of personalities whom I later in life had reason to follow more closely: Estes Kefauver ... promising state senators like Birch Bayh ... a young, promising senator from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy. They used to come to the house. I was 17 or 18 then.''

The ambassador proudly displays on his desk a color photo of his three children (``typical Swedish blonds''): Anna, 19, a Hunter College student; Emilie, 17, who attends the UN international school, and Johan, 9, a fourth grader, who ``didn't know a word of English when he came here'' last spring.

Eliasson admits nostalgia for his less demanding days as a first secretary in Sweden's Washington embassy during the Vietnam War, when for recreation he used to backpack along the Shenandoah Valley's Appalachian Trail.

Or with map and compass, he would strike off into the wilderness ``without seeing a human being for two or three days.'' As time permits these days, he plays tennis (``I'm not good; I'm fair'') and reads American, Spanish, and Swedish novels.

``But with this type of work and a family,'' he said, ``there isn't much time.''

Asked how long it would be before the Iran-Iraq conflict is resolved and he can return to a normal ambassadorial life, Eliasson recalled a trip to Iran: ``There was a sign in a Teheran hotel that Olof Palme and I saw once: `Patience is the greatest bravery.' We often quoted that.''

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