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Jimmy Carter says he's gratified by his popularity and the respect he's getting for his global mediation efforts, but he says he's "not foolish enough" to think about winning the presidency again.

He also has no aspirations to be the world's most prominent election observer.Carter played a prominent role in certifying that Nicaragua's recent presidential election was fair. He was invited to oversee elections in Hungary and Romania. And he has agreed to help monitor elections in the Dominican Republic next month.

But, he said: "It's not a niche I want to fulfill permanently. If I see that my presence can be the deciding factor in the integrity of an election, I would do it, but I don't need to go just to say, `We've got a former U.S. president here.' I'm not looking for ceremonial roles."

In an interview last week in his Carter Presidential Center office, the 65-year-old former president warned of tougher times ahead for Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, said it's a mistake to assume that communism is crumbling universally, and explained how - and why - he was willing to go to Beirut, Lebanon.

Carter attributed the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe mainly to Gorbachev.

"It's a change that Gorbachev has brought," Carter said. "It would be a mistake to think it's a worldwide inevitability.

"We don't see it happening in North Korea. We don't see it happening in Vietnam. We don't see it happening in Albania. We don't see it happening in China, and we haven't seen it happen in Cuba."

Gorbachev's biggest threat - "much worse than ethnic independence moves or anything else" - is his country's economic ruin, Carter said, adding:

"When I meet privately with Soviet leaders, they make it clear to me that the West has underestimated the economic deterioration in the Soviet Union."

In the Middle East, Carter sees "a general consensus . . . now, that the time for hostage-taking has passed and that these hostages ought to be released."

In the wake of last week's release of hostage Robert Polhill, Carter said, the administration should not be "too effusive in your thanks, when only one hostage is released. But you can acknowledge the fact that this is leading toward reconciliation."

After spending 10 days in the Middle East last month, Carter was criticized for charging Israel with violations of Palestinian rights.

"I know that when any statement is made that is critical of Israel . . . it's going to be condemned," he said. "I understand their concerns."

He reiterated that he had simply condemned one Israeli policy - "deporting mothers and children from their own homes in the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan, which I thought was a terrible crime."

Following his criticism, the policy was changed.

"I don't have any apology to make. I am concerned about any genuine belief that I am biased, but a lot of the accusations about bias are deliberately designed to prevent further criticism of Israel's policies. And I don't choose to be intimidated."

While Carter has been seen as a success on the global stage, former President Reagan has been criticized for taking lucrative speaking engagements and stumbling badly in his testimony during the Iran-Contra trial of John Poindexter.

The result: Carter's approval rating in U.S. public opinion polls is higher now than that of the man who defeated him so overwhelmingly 10 years ago.

"You find that surprising?" Carter joked.

During his administration from 1977 to 1981, Carter was widely criticized for the state of the economy and his handling of foreign affairs, including the Iranian hostage crisis.

Carter conceded he finds his new popularity flattering, although "that's not the goal of my life, to get favorable public opinion polls."

"Part of it is what we've done since we've left the White House. Part of it is a growing historical assessment of our administrations. And I think part of it is the quite dramatic changes in Reagan's policies by George Bush.

"I think it would embarrass him, my saying this, but I think his policies are much more comparable to those of Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and Ford and me than they are comparable with Reagan's policies."

Still, Carter insists he never even daydreams about running again for anything: "Never. I'm not foolish enough to think that I would win an election for president; that would be out of the question. And secondly, I'm perfectly satisfied with what I'm doing here.

"I can say what I like. I can meet whom I want. I can take on the projects that please me, and reject the ones that don't."