WHEN President Clinton blocked a $1 billion United States corporate oil deal with Iran last month we applauded. Iran is developing a nuclear option, and it was encouraging to find the administration taking a firm foreign policy stand where principle outweighed profit. Iran has continued its anti-American and anti-Israel talk, and it is naive to ignore such rhetoric.
But Mr. Clinton's latest step to further isolate and cut off all US business relations with Iran seems questionable. The president has not yet made a complete enough case for embarking on this particular single-minded anti-Iranian embargo.
Will this move pressure Moscow to stop nuclear sales to Iran? Defense Secretary Perry's Moscow visit didn't.
Why is the president focusing this week on Iranian terrorism? No evidence was given that Iran has notably increased its activity in this area. The terrorism in Oklahoma City has nothing to do with Iran. Nor, does it seem, did the World Trade Center bombing two years ago. Indeed, Israeli intelligence officials said after last week's bombing that Iran has cut back its export of cowardly political violence.
Moreover, the context of the policy and its announcement is sure to raise further questions about how independent US policy is. The new sanctions, announced in a speech before the World Jewish Congress on the heels of a heart-wrenching Holocaust memorial anniversary, seemed infused with domestic politics. Some will question where US foreign policy ends and Israeli interests begin.
If, for example, the president's anti-Iran initiative looks to other foreign ministries like simply a political payoff, it won't be taken seriously. If not, what good will it do? Business leaders here already admit there will be no problem for Iran to find other markets. If the White House is not careful, it will find US policy, not Iran, isolated. China, Russia, India, and the Europeans are talking with Tehran.
One thing the White House could do to protect its remaining independence in the Middle East is to cease a persistent false presentation of the situation there. Clinton referred to ''the dawn of peace in the Middle East'' in his speech -- ignoring the ongoing repression of Palestinians by Israel. But a more candid assessment of the facts will increase US diplomatic capital.