The Reagan administration's drive to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war has run into the slow pace of United Nations diplomacy in New York. However, Secretary of State George Shultz says he is confident that there will be enough votes to impose UN arms sanctions on Iran, if UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar does not soon make progress in getting Iran to agree to a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, Congress is increasingly restive over its nonrole in the administration's policy. Some legislators are trying to force the administration to seek congressional approval, while others join in a symbolic slap at continuing trade with Iran.
The administration, however, continues to maintain that the US presence in the Gulf does not require congressional approval and seems firm in its determination to continue the US military presence there.
The US has slowed its drive to place UN arms sanctions on Iran. The goal is to press Tehran to accept a cease-fire in its war with Iraq under the terms of a July 20 UN resolution.
After a recent meeting with the Soviet foreign minister and others, Mr. Shultz and his advisers concluded they did not have the support to win an immediate sanctions vote in the UN Security Council, US diplomats say.
``No one benefits from a public defeat,'' says Washington foreign affairs consultant James Placke.
However, Shultz in public and other US officials in private are still optimistic that if Iran does not display more flexibility soon, an embargo will be imposed. Shultz and Vernon Walters, the US ambassador to the UN, are stressing the value of maintaining unity of the Security Council. The administration has also been holding off from further moves, according to US diplomats, until Italy took over the presidency of the Security Council from Ghana, which occurred last Thursday. The Ghanaians have been very pro-Iran, according to one US official.
Still, it won't be easy to build a consensus, even with the Italians in the chair, US officials say. ``Iran has a good sense of the choreography of the UN and how to look like the aggrieved party,'' one official notes.
Certain countries like Japan and West Germany also have important economic interests in Iran and are urging caution, he adds. US and European intelligence sources believe Iran is holding up the release of the remaining German hostage held by the pro-Iranian Hizbullah in Lebanon as an additional lever on Bonn.
China remains very hesitant to sanction Iran unless isolated, an official China watcher says. Moscow is still being pulled by its desire to become the arbiter of the war, says Harvard University Prof. Laurie Mylroie. To a certain point, she says, the Soviets derive tactical advantages if the war continues, as it reinforces their image as the key actor. Ms. Mylroie and US officials add, however, that Iraq and the Gulf Arabs are furious over Moscow's dallying with Tehran.
If Tehran is serious about a cease-fire, the US is willing to be flexible on such questions as the investigation into who was responsible for starting the war and on postwar ``reconstruction funds.'' Few US officials, however, think Iran is serious and they expect an arms embargo to be their next step.
Drafting of new Security Council instructions for the Secretary-General's next steps has begun, officials say. Simultaneously, drafting has begun on possible sanctions resolutions, in order to increase the pressure on Iran to cooperate, they add.
In the meantime, US officials say the administration is determined to maintain its presence in the Gulf as long as necessary and to act forcefully, if threatened. This, they say, was the thrust of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's recent statements, and there is no contradiction, they add, with Shultz's more moderate sounding remarks in New York. The two men are addressing different audiences, one official explains. Shultz is trying to persuade hesitant diplomats to act and Mr. Weinberger is bolstering the troops and warning Iran, he says.
Back on Capitol Hill in Washington, however, there is growing restlessness among supporters and opponents of the US presence in the Gulf. All apparently want to be involved in some way. This was highlighted by a unanimous vote by the Senate this week banning all imports from Iran. Momentum is also building in the House for such a move. The vote followed reports that US imports of Iranian oil had soared this summer.
However, ``Congress is never so unanimous as when it means nothing,'' says a key congressional aide who doubts the amendment will become law. Even if it does, he and a State Department official say, it would be pure symbolism, since it is almost impossible to ban anything but the most direct import of one country's oil and other countries would take up any slack in cheap Iranian oil.
Mr. Placke adds that an embargo could also violate the Algiers accord with Iran whereby the US and Iran agreed to a procedure for settling outstanding disputes and which led to the release of US embassy hostages. This could endanger the continuing claims-settlement process, Placke adds, and cut off what has become the only continuing venue for nonpolemical meetings.