President Carter is like a juggler on a high wire with three balls in the air -- only the balls are explosive hand grenades. They are labeled Iran, Afghanistan, and Palestine.
Beneath him is no safety net, simply the challenge of a US presidential election year in which he faces the cross fire from the Republican Party opposition -- and from the man in hiw own Democratic Party who would topple him.
Mr. Carter needs to show that he has an effective foreign policy in this most explosive of crisis areas, stretching from the Levant through the Persian Gulf to the Khyber Pass. He needs to do this both in the national interest of the United States -- and in his own interest as an incumbent President seeking re-election.
So far, America's allies and clients have not been very helpful:
* On Iran, neither Western Europe nor Japan has been keen to join with the US to put the screws on Iran in the hope of getting the 53 captive American diplomats in Tehran freed. But now, both Western Europe and Japan are getting their arms twisted to come more into line with the US.
The implied threat to the allies from Washington: If you do not accept some minimum sacrifice in the common Western cause now, you could find yourselves paying a far higher price, should the US be obliged to go it alone with military moves against Iran.
* On Afghanistan, Mr. Carter has had to fight an uphill battle to get even the US Olympic Committee to come into line with official Washington policy of boycotting the Moscow Olympics in the summer, in what is intended as a telling psychological blow against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
America's allies can now expect more arm-twisting on this issue. To date, only the Norwegians have committed themselves to an Olympic boycott all the way.
* On Palestine, Mr. Carter has managed for the moment to keep things on the back burner with his separate meetings in the White House earlier this month with Egyptian President Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But in effect, Mr. Begin yielded nothing in the direction of flexibility on autonomy for the Palestinians (as both Mr. Carter and Mr. Sadat interpret it).
Yet Mr. Sadat dutifully agreed to continue the negotiating process, since his policy is to give nobody -- and certainly neither the US President nor US public opinion -- an excuse for pointing a finger at him as the roadblock to negotiated compromise on the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
If one wanted to be cynical, one could argue that Mr. Carter has ordered his priorities on these three issues in terms of electoral politics. Iran, the hostages, and sanctions are at the top of his list. Afghanistan and the Olympics come second -- and Palestine last.
There then follows the question: Does this ordering of priorities reflect the harsh fact of American domestic politics that, in a presidential election year, it is much easier to apply pressure, without a backlash at the polls, to Western European allies and Japan than to Israel?
Certainly Israeli Prime Minister Begin's words and actions imply his being aware of this. He was quoted, after returning to Jerusalem from Washington, as saying that his most rewarding session there was with about a thousand American Jewish leaders (who are, of course, not without influence in this election year).
With them, he was reported as saying, he had achieved a common front on three issues: the status of Jerusalem, Israeli security on the West Bank and in Gaza, and the nature of any autonomy for Palestinians. His unyielding stands on all three have been sticking points throughout the post-Camp David negotiations.
Add to that Mr. Begin's recent actions on Jewish settlements in Hebron and on the West Bank and his government's reiterated support for the hard-line Christian militias of Major Saad Haddad in southern Lebanon, even after the latter last week had killed two Irish members of the United Nations peacekeeping force in the area.
The overall impression is of an ideologically committed Israeli Prime Minister resistant to US or wider international pressure -- and feeling no need to be otherwise, least of all in this US presidential election year.
But when it comes to Mr. Carter's pressure on America's European and Japanese allies to get into step with the US on Iran, the President at last may be finding some "give." For one thing, the allies can see that on this issue, so unlike the one directly involving Israel, American public opinion would endorse, even want, pressure on apparently fair-weather allies reluctant to stand up and be counted with the US now that the going has gotten tough.
These governments lack the effective internal lobbies that Mr. Begin can mobilize in the US political arena.
For the administration, the impending showdown on Iran's university campuses between Islamic and "non-Islamic" groups is likely to overshadow any worry about the possible propaganda use to US disadvantage of a visit to Tehran by the mother and stepfather of one of the hostages.
From the day that the revolution triumphed in Iran in February 1979, a showdown between religious fundamentalists and the Left has seemed inevitable. In all the overt trials of strength to date, the fundamentalists have managed to outmaneuver the Left.
But the Left has managed to maintain its footholds and its organizational network on university campuses. On April 18, the fundamentalist-dominated Revolutionary Council decided to move against that.It ordered the closing on campuses of all "non-Islamic" offices and bookstands.
The Left was not fooled. It began to resist the closure order with sit-ins. Violence followed in university campuses across Iran, not only in Tehran but also in Tabriz, Mashad, and Shiraz. On April 19, the Revolutionary Council ordered all universities and colleges closed for two days.
Directly threatened are the two armed guerrilla groups that worked and survived underground during the latter years of the ousted Shah's regime: the atheistic and avowedly Marxist Fedayeen-e Khalq and the nominally Islamic but radically progressive Mujahadeen-e Khalq.
Both see themselves as in the forefront of those who fought and suffered to overthrow the Shah. Both claim a place for themselves in the forces of the revolution. Neither is likely to go out of business without a fight.
In an extremity, both or either could ally themselves with the non-Persian minorities, such as the Kurds, already threatening the survival of a united Iran.