US rescue bid: still support from W. Europe, Japan but US prestige drops in Mideast as tensions rise; Arabs step back from US

Overseas news editor David Anable reports from Cairo: The already tattered prestige of the United States has been shredded a little further in the eye of bemused Muslims, especially Arabs, by the failed American rescue mission in Iran.

In particular, what is widely seen as US vacillation and hesitation in Iran now is even more sharply contrasted with the Russians' savage, all-out suppression of next-door Afghanistan.

The assumption here is that the greatest impact of all this will be felt in the Gulf, from which flows more than half the Western world's oil. But Egyptian officials also fear a possible slackening of US pressures on Israel as the Palestinian autonomy talks this week start their nonstop marathon toward the May 26 "target date."

"The picture of the United States as the strongest power in the world has been shaken," comments one Egyptian official sadly. "Even the Bay of Pigs was not like this."

Muslim states below the Soviet rim are cautiously distancing themselves from Washington -- their governments and/or their newspapers deploring the American operation with varying degrees of scorn. Even NATO-member Turkey, while conceding that hostage-holding is against international law, has gently chided the United States for resorting to force which "could increase tension in the region."

In the Gulf itself, the bevy of oil-endowed sheikhdoms is seen here as doubly scared. Not only has Washington's influence seemed to ebb vis-a-vis the Soviets but Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fiery brand of Shiite Islam in Iran is displayed as triumphant one again. The Arab sheikhs try to prevent it from setting their own Shiite minorities ablaze by dousing the region with anti-US rhetoric.

While Gulf newspapers have outdone one another to castigate the American "terrorist operation" (Kuwait) and the "absolute stupidity" of President Carter's policies (Qatar), Bahraini Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa reportedly called for a joint strategy by Gulf states to protect the region.

Meanwhile, a somber Egyptian delegation headed April 27 for Herzlia, Israel. Its members were braced for a difficult, perhaps impossible, race against the Camp David "target date" of May 26 for agreement on Palestinian autonomy.

Egypt's President Anwar Sadat has pinned his hopes for progress almost exclusively on "my friend Jimmy." His wholehearted endorsement of the hostage rescue attempt again illustrated his strategy.

Others grasp at a different straw. "This is all he has left," says one Egyptian in close touch with the autonomy talks.

It is not so much that the Egyptians are in a hurry. They see President Carter's position as much nearer theirs than Israel's; hence, they would prefer to let time elapse for Mr. Carter's strength vis-a-vis Israel to increase.

But at the same time they recognize that to gain or retain any credibility with the Palestinians (for whom they in theory are negotiating) they must achieve some significant results by May 26. "We must ring the proper bells for the Palestinians," explains one official.

What bells? Some sort of curb on Jewish settlements; a softening of Israel's rigid position on security; something nearer compromise on the self-rule authority's size (Israel says about a dozen members, Egypt more like 80) and, by implication, its power. Western and Egyptian diplomats privately confess that most such "bells" are likely to remain silent.

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