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Iran Snubs U.S., Seeks to Repair European Ties

Times Staff Writer

Iran’s Islamic government, reeling from defeats in the Persian Gulf War, seems to be trying to repair its relations with Western Europe while scuttling any possibility of a rapprochement with the United States, U.S. officials believe.

By pressuring Muslim militants to release three French hostages in Lebanon earlier this month, Iran probably hoped to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States and break up what had been a solid Western front opposed to Iranian interests both in the United Nations and in the gulf region.

Details of the Paris-Tehran deal over the hostages are a carefully guarded secret in both countries. Consequently there has been speculation that France agreed to make substantial concessions, possibly including the supply of arms.

But at least one U.S. official now believes that the price may have been lower than suspected, because the release probably served Iranian interests better than the continued captivity of the hostages.

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Split Europe Off

“The Iranians would like to split Europe off from the United States,” this official said.

If that was Tehran’s objective, it seems to have worked. The Reagan Administration issued an icy statement at the time of the release of the French hostages, warning that if Paris made any concessions at all it could lead to additional abductions and increase the danger faced by remaining hostages.

At the same time, U.S.-Iran ties have sunk to their lowest level since Iranian militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

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After months of restraint, Iran resumed mining the international waters of the Persian Gulf last month. The U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts was heavily damaged when it hit a mine that Pentagon officials said may have been placed in its path only hours before. In retaliation, the U.S. Navy destroyed two offshore Iranian oil platforms, touching off a naval battle in which the Iranian navy lost half of its newest and most capable warships.

The official speculated that the mining may have been carried out by militant Iranian factions determined to head off any improvement in relations with Washington. That view is shared by Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Aspin maintains that “there is good reason to suspect that the mines . . . were not laid by the Tehran authorities but by some Iranian radicals looking to start a fight.”

Aspin said the Administration overreacted to the provocation and “may have played into the hands of the bad guys in the Persian Gulf.”

But after its humiliating experience of searching for Iranian moderates in what became the Iran-Contra affair, the Administration is wary of trying to sort out the differences between Iranian factions. In practice, the agreement of virtually all the factions is required to change the regime’s policy, and almost every faction has enough power on its own to block a change. Therefore, the result is much the same whether the fight was picked by the Tehran government as a whole or by one of its powerful factions.

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While writing off any improvement in relations with Washington, Iran is trying to shore up other relationships in the face of important setbacks in its war with Iraq. On the day American warships punished the Iranian navy, Iraqi ground forces recaptured the Faw Peninsula, driving Iran out of its last significant foothold on Iraqi territory.

Lebanese Crisis

In addition, Iran faces a potential crisis in Lebanon, where it is backing efforts by the fundamentalist Shia Muslim Hezbollah to establish an Iran-style Islamic republic in at least part of Lebanon. Hezbollah is now engaged in bitter fighting against a rival Shia militia, Amal, which is backed by Syria, Iran’s only ally in the Arab world.

So far, the Tehran-Damascus alliance has held despite the fighting by their Lebanese surrogates. Iran and Syria have been cooperating in a generally unsuccessful effort to mediate an end to the dispute.

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Hezbollah currently seems to have the upper hand in the fighting. Paradoxically, if Iran’s surrogates are too successful, it could cause a severe problem for the Tehran government, one U.S. official said.

The official said Syria’s President Hafez Assad is determined to prevent the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic republic on Syria’s border because this might encourage fundamentalist Muslim elements in Syria. The Syrian regime is secular and Assad is a member of the Alowite sect, which is considered heresy by many Muslims.

The official said the Syrians might decide to turn their own troops against Hezbollah if Assad concludes that such action is necessary to prevent a victory by the fundamentalists. To do that, Syria would have to renounce its alliance with Iran.

(Late Saturday, Syrian reinforcements--apparently prepared to intervene--were massed at the edge of the south Beirut slums recently captured by Iranian-allied Hezbollah. Story, Page 6.)

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“From what we’re looking at right now, Syria considers its relationship with Iran to be pretty important,” the official said. “If that is the case, they won’t move.”

But if Syria changes its mind, there is not much Iran could do to defend its Lebanese allies. Iranian Revolutionary Guards are fighting alongside Hezbollah troops, but they can be resupplied and reinforced only through Damascus.

If Iranian forces were denied the use of the Damascus airport and overland routes through Syrian-controlled territory, they could not reach the Hezbollah positions.

William B. Quandt, a former National Security Council expert on the Middle East, predicted that Syria will continue to balance its interests in Lebanon with its Iranian alliance.

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“It is clear that the Syrian interest is not to see Amal fail or Hezbollah prevail,” Quandt said. “But it would be unusual for Syria to go for broke in this sort of thing. In the past, the Syrians have tried to play a balancing game without eliminating any player.”


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