United NATO ponders best way to protest Soviets' Afghan foray

Members of the 15-nation NATO alliance have come together in renewed solidarity to express their condemnation of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan.

This latest move is in marked contrast to their reluctance to take concerted action following the Nov. 4 takeover of the US Embassy in Iran.

At a New Year's Day meeting in Brussels, the allies discussed three possible responses:

* Boycotting the 1980 Olympics, scheduled to open in Moscow on July 19.

* Curbing commercial credits to the Soviet Union, which would restrict trade with Western countries.

* Stopping American wheat sales to grain-hungry Russia.

The emergency meeting of the NATO council in Brussels with US Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher followed a preliminary meeting Dec. 31 in London.

The London conference, held at the old India Office (where diplomatic struggles between the British Empire and Russia were fought over Afghanistan in the 19th century) was attended by the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, and West Germany. These nations concluded that the Soviets must be treated to something other than "business as usual."

One diplomat here noted that the West is "sensitive to charges that it does nothing but deplore" Soviet acts of aggression. The mood now, perhaps heightened by recent events in Iran, is one of annoyance at being pushed around.

Yet, as another diplomat observed, the West wants to avoid "cutting off its nose to spite its face" by imposing sanctions more harmful to alliance countries than to the Soviet Union.

The call for an olympic ban of the sort considered but never mounted against Hitler's Berlin Olympics in 1936 has come even more strongly from Europe than from the United States. Such a ban could embarrass the Soviets, who would then have to explain to their own population why no one was coming to the party they had so carefully planned.

But some observers doubt that such a ban would be acceptable in the West, which has long supported the nonpolitical nature of the games.

Besides, says one diplomat, the gesture might ring hollow: In the face of a very real incursion with tanks and troops, the West might simply be seen as "quite literally picking up its ball and going home."

More probable, some feel, is the use of economic sanctions. US wheat trade with the Soviets, which might have approached record levels this year, could readily be suspended. This could be achieved by delaying export licenses -- until the Soviet tune changed.

But it would not be without cost: In 1978- 79, according to Department of Agriculture figures, the US exported 94 million bushels of hard red winter wheat to the Soviet Union -- 8 percent of its total wheat exports, worth about $338 million.

Trade between European countries and Russia is more difficult to assess.

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