The Clinton administration's policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran has run into some strange twists and turns that raise the question of who is containing whom.
In one case, deterring Iraq has turned into deterring Iran. Enforcing a "no fly" zone against Saddam Hussein in southern Iraq, the United States found that zone being violated by Iranian planes attacking Iranian dissident camps in Iraq. The Navy sent the carrier Nimitz steaming toward the Persian Gulf as a warning to both governments not to start an air war.
In most cases, the US finds itself trying to enforce its sanctions on unwilling allies. Defying the threat of punishment under the D'Amato Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, French, Russian, and Malaysian oil companies are proceeding with a $2 billion contract for Iranian gas-field development. Russia recently sold three submarines to Iran.
In Luxemburg, the European Union, whose members are sending their ambassadors back to Teheran, formally denounced the US for trying to enforce its laws in other countries.
Although France has ostentatiously stuck its thumb in President Clinton's eye, the administration is apparently having second thoughts about applying sanctions.
Defense Secretary William Cohen has been in Paris trying to patch things up with his French colleague.
Russian companies have reportedly made another breach in the wall around Iran by helping the Islamic republic develop a missile with a 1,200-mile range that would bring Tel Aviv and Ankara within reach of Tehran.
American intelligence discounts official Russian denials of involvement with missile development in a state labeled as "terrorist" by the US.
Iraq, meanwhile, has returned to its practice of barring United Nations inspectors from suspected weapons sites. On two recent occasions, UN relief convoys have come under attack in northern Iraq.
A battle over whether to reimpose full sanctions on Iraq was shaping up in the Security Council, and the US was not sure that such a move would be supported by countries like France and Russia, anxious to resume their commercial ties with Iraq.
At one point after another, American efforts to maintain the containment of Iraq and Iran are running into opposition from countries more interested in pursuing their economic interests than a superpower's ideological whims. The danger is that the US, trying to isolate its Middle East antagonists, will find itself isolated.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.