Washington's major European allies are increasingly worried that U.S. public perceptions that they are "not doing enough" to help the United States in the Iranian crisis will strain long-term bonds of trust in the West.
The Europeans have expressed what one administration official called "a rather rare level of unhappiness" over U.S. media reports and public comments which, they say, imply the allies are more worried about their own economies and high level of oil imports than they are about Iran's holding of 50 American hostages.
U.S. Officials, diplomats and European government officials surveyed by Washington Post correspondents in West Germany, France, Britain and Italy insist they are more than satisfied with each other's performances in the Iran situation. They note repeated public statements of support, diplomatic protests and also more private assistance by European embassies in Tehran.
While they sense a low-level clamor here for more dramatic action such as breaking diplomatic relations with Iran, several of the European officials said the United States has specifically requested their governments to maintain ties and leave open every channel of communication with the Iranian government.
But the continuing crisis inevitably has put Western political alliances and economic dependence on Middle East oil in competition.
One indication of the overlapping imperatives will come this weekend, when members of the International Energy Agency meet in Paris to discuss reduced crude oil import targets set last summer.
Looking ahead to its own anticipated recession, and considering promises of cutbacks in consumption recently made by Treasury Secretary G. William Miller to Mideast oil-producing moderates, the United States wants to lower the targets even further, and has proposed a monthly monitoring system to gauge compliance.
The issue, and European reluctance to impose binding import restrictions, long predate the Iran crisis. The weekend discussions originally were scheduled to coincide with a Dec. 16 meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
"We won't be making the political solidarity argument" on Iran in Paris, one State Department official said, but he added that the strong implication is there. U.S. officials agreed that the expected rejection of the U.S. proposals would be considered a rebuff of Washington's efforts to achieve a united Western front on the Iranian crisis.
For most of the Europeans, the shutdown of oil supplies from Iran or severing of relations would have serious repercussions. Although West Germany's dependence is less now than in previous years, Iran is still its fifth largest crude supplier and provides more than 10 percent of its needs.
Both the Europeans and the State Department maintain they are doing everything feasible and possible to support the U.S. position in Iran. One phrase echoed repeatedly by both European and U.S. officials was that the allies are doing "everything the United States has asked."
Growing concern on both sides of the Atlantic over public attitudes led last week to State Department compilation and release of a list of public and diplomatic steps the allies have taken to protest the Iranian actions.
France, which was particularly wounded over criticism that its denunciation in Saturday's U.N. Security Council meeting was not as strong as some others', has released its own list of "Statements on the Situation in Iran" showing its outrage.
In addition, officials of all governments contacted note, without detail, that their embassies in Tehran have provided the United States with regular reports on developments in Iran.
Most of these services, which in some cases include plugging the United States into their own internal communications channels from Iran, have been kept quiet for fear of Iranian reaction.
In other cases, direct assistance has been given. As Pakistani mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad Nov. 21, the West German ambassador rushed to the scene and tried to stop the attackers.
And despite fears for its own diplomats, the British Embassy in Islamabad quietly opened its doors to Americans escaping from the compound.
European ambassadors in Tehran where, as one diplomat noted, "everything you do is sticking your neck out," have repeatedly called at the Iranian Foreign Ministry to protest the holding of the hostages, and the Europeans give tight-lipped hints of direct mediation efforts.
But, said a German diplomat glumly, public statements and private appeals "are not what the critics in this country expect. They want action; the want us to play the strongmen and do something like freeze Iranian assets."
So far, the Europeans see their own restraint as a reflection of U.S. moderation and believe that the United States has a firm commitment to consult them before taking military action against Iran.
The United States agrees, to a point. "We treasure our allies and would not take extreme action without consulting them," one official observed.
"Of course, the fact is we can't say" what would happen in every circumstance, he said. "No nation can be tied to consultation in extreme moments of dire peril. But we understand their problem."
Italy purchases 13 percent of its oil imports from Iran. France and Britain fear the possibility of a general disruption of world trade and oil flows from the Middle East. West Germany has a lot of Iranian money in its banks.
Japan perhaps has the most to lose from an oil cutoff. It imports all of its oil, with nearly 15 percent coming from Iran.