Calls For Revenge - and Caution

Despite Iranian threats, reaction to Flight 655's fate is muted

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Tehran's relatively subdued response to the shootdown is further evidence that at least some Iranian officials are determined to end their country's diplomatic isolation. In recent months the government has sought to repair ruptured relations with Britain, France, Canada and even, it was disclosed last week, the U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz revealed that beginning last April, the Iranians initiated a series of secret contacts with the U.S. in an effort to open a diplomatic dialogue. Washington responded positively, State Department officials said, but insisted that any discussions be with an "authoritative" Iranian representative. Shultz was still waiting for a reply to that demand when Flight 655 went down.

Around the world, governmental reaction to the episode was muted. There was resolute support for the U.S. from the Arab gulf states, whose leadership blamed the eight-year-old Iran-Iraq war for the shootdown. Libyan Strongman Muammar Gaddafi's government predictably labeled the destruction of the airliner a "disgraceful and terrorist act," while Iran's hard-line ally Syria expressed "pain, dismay and disgust." As always, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was President Reagan's staunchest defender. "You cannot put navies into the gulf to defend shipping from attack without giving them the right to defend themselves," said she. Nor was the U.S. gulf policy seriously questioned by Washington's other Western allies or Japan.

Most interesting of all, perhaps, was the Soviet Union's failure to exploit the situation. Soon after the shootdown, Radio Moscow labeled it "deliberate mass murder in cold blood." But subsequent statements were less shrill. Soviet Spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov branded the Vincennes' personnel "trigger happy" and let it go at that. Asked why he was not more critical, Gerasimov said he did not want to follow the "bad example of the totally wild anti- Soviet reaction" in the U.S. to the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 in 1983.

On Capitol Hill the disaster raised new calls for congressional oversight of the Administration's gulf policy, which a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report called "dangerously nebulous" and "confused." Because the 1973 War Powers Resolution has not been invoked, the President has not been forced either to justify his policy to Congress or bring U.S. forces home within a specified time. And despite last week's tragic events, he is under little real pressure to change a policy that Administration officials insist has been strikingly successful at achieving its aims: to contain Iranian aggression, restrict Soviet involvement in the gulf, keep international sea-lanes open and restore American credibility among the Arab gulf states in the wake of the Iran-contra scandal. Barring a settlement of the Iran-Iraq conflict, U.S. warships may be found in gulf waters long after Reagan's departure from the White House.

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