ROME — U.S. allies in Europe are trying to say as little as possible about "Irangate," as it is commonly called on this side of the Atlantic--the disclosure of the Iran- contras connection.
Italy is no exception. Even the communist press avoids harassing President Reagan and restrains its comments to the judgment that the current Administration is mortally wounded. For the press and television, the real casualty of the scandal is U.S. foreign policy. And this raises, of course, the fundamental question: Who can replace America's leadership and sustain the burden of the Atlantic Alliance foreign policy, if the competence of the White House is so severely challenged and discredited?
America's allies in Europe are divided on many issues. They have been unable to create a political community and, since the achievement of the customs union, have made hardly any progress in other key sectors of economic integration. They have been unable to guarantee their own military security, which has been entrusted for the past 40 years to the American nuclear umbrella. Thus the alliance has been held in line behind the U.S. flag.
Now, however, the disclosure of the arms deals with Iran and of payments to the Nicaraguan rebels has produced a sensation among the European allies unmatched since the days of the Watergate crisis. And the attitude of officials in European capitals--who at this point want to avoid adding to Reagan's troubles by voicing stronger criticism--is largely due to the awareness that no other nation in Western Europe is able to take the place of the faltering leadership.
Confusion and embarrassment among America's allies in the southern flank of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is even more evident, perhaps, than in the other Western European nations.
The Iranian government has singled out Italy, among the allies, by personally attacking the defense minister, Giovanni Spadolini, and almost breaking diplomatic relations between the two countries. The Iranian ambassador has been recalled from Rome and three Italian diplomats expelled from Tehran. The pretext was a satirical sketch on Italian TV judged irreverent to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But the Iranian charges against Italy have proliferated and spread; the Rome government is now equated with the United States and Israel--"the hated enemies"--and accused, among other things, of allowing Italian firms to export chemical-warfare agents to Iraq.
The real motivation behind the Iranian moves is perplexing to Rome. Trials are pending in Italy, Turkey and Spain, three of NATO's key southern allies, that are expected to expose Syrian involvement in terrorism. Syria is a close ally of Iran against Iraq. Is there a connection between the totally unexpected attacks on Italy and those pending trials?
Emboldened by the political crisis in Washington and by the Administration's loss of popular support, the Iranians are clearly seizing all opportunities. They know how to play games. They blackmail a country, like Italy, which may expose Syrian involvement in terrorism, but simultaneously they let it be known to the Italian government that a large part of their displeasure stems from the fact that Italy has reduced arms sales to Iran from $300 million in 1983 to about $3 million in 1985. They engage in secret deals with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, with the obvious objective of increasing their influence in the region.
The recent Saudi-Iranian talks to limit oil production and support its price at around $18 a barrel strongly suggest some understanding that might extend to a broader geopolitical context: the Iran-Iraq War. The southern NATO allies, however, who are directly confronted with Mediterranean realities, are concerned by the prospect of an Iranian breakthrough that could touch off an Islamic fundamentalist revival and topple several moderate Arab governments. Egypt and Jordan have already voiced their fears, which find sympathetic ears in Rome where King Hussein is expected shortly for an official visit.
If there is a region where the evolution of the situation in Iran is followed with a particular sense of urgency, it is the Mediterranean. This is why the United States' policy toward Iran is a matter of such great concern here.