Dealing with Syria and Iran

THE Reagan administration should explain quickly what it has been up to in its dealings with Iran. It should curb its go-it-alone tendencies and act at once to bring Congress and its allies into its confidence. At stake is its credibility among allies on its terrorism policy and the workability of White House relations with Congress during the President's final two years in office. The administration is being forced to acknowledge that, except in the broadest terms, there can be no such thing as a universal policy on terrorism. Terrorism involves a wide range of actors - political factions, religious groups - and tacit to overt government complicity. It involves a wide range of practices - kidnappings, assassinations, bombings. Combinations of actors and targets complicate matters further. Any ``universal'' policy is likely to unravel into inconsistencies and credibility problems for governments that try to impose one.

The experience with Libya, Syria, and Iran demonstrates the difficulty of devising one remedy for disparate cases. The Reagan administration's military assault on Libya, a weak and erratically led country, for fostering terrorist acts could not be repeated with Syria. Syria is a militarily more difficult target. It has closer links to the Soviet Union. Its leadership offers some prospect for dealing with hostage-holders. Long range, Syria must be counted a factor in Middle East peace negotiations. Hence, to hold Syria accountable for acts of terrorism, the West Europeans have adopted mild sanctions such as an arms embargo and suspension of high-level diplomatic contacts. And the United States weighs similar steps.

Sanctions, even the threat of sanctions, can be useful. Perhaps to show itself no pariah, Syria has helped in the release of captives, the latest being two French citizens returned to Paris this week.

Then there's Iran.

Here the Reagan administration has allowed great confusion to arise. It was troubling enough for the administration to appear to contradict its antiterrorist hard line of not negotiating for the release of Americans held hostage by Iranian-linked elements in Lebanon. With its secret contacts with Iran, it purportedly had in mind a reasonable enough foreign policy goal - seeking some accommodation with Iranian elements with an eye to a successor to the present fanatical regime. But the appearance of exchanging arms for hostages, if it is as bald as that, would only set the stage for more hostage-taking, not bring to a halt the current round.

Further, the White House has chosen to use the services of the National Security Council in supervising arms shipments to Iran, as well as playing some role as go-between with Iran, the details still to be disclosed. NSC personnel have similarly become the key players in administration projects like its contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Use of the NSC for such purposes at the least provokes congressional concern that the administration is attempting an end run on legislative oversight of foreign policy.

The administration has enough to deal with in Damascus, Tehran, and Tripoli. It hardly needs to provoke a fight in Washington with a Congress that will be looking to exercise its new clout under a Democratic leadership in both chambers.

For now, the administration at the least should take the congressional leadership into its confidence on its Iran and Syria policies. It should embark on public disclosure as soon as possible without jeopardizing the release of other hostages.

Candor regarding Iran would make it easier for the White House to sell its essentially moderate policy on Syria.

And a more modest appraisal of the use of sanctions or force in fighting terrorism would give the administration more flexibility in the future.

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