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U.S. IS CONSIDERING IRAN TRADE BAN

Secretary of State Warren Christopher is leading the Clinton administration toward a tougher policy toward Iran, and critical decisions are expected soon on whether to impose a ban on all U.S. trade with Iran and to bar all purchases of Iranian oil by American oil companies.

U.S. officials say President Clinton's top policy advisers will meet at the White House this week or next to weigh a more hawkish approach, with Christopher setting the pace.While direct purchases of Iranian oil for the U.S. market are banned under current law, subsidiaries of American companies are buying about $4 billion of it annually on the open market. In addition, U.S. exports to Iran - much of it oilfield equipment - totaled $616 million in 1993, according to Commerce Department figures.

Christopher, who has denounced Iran as the leading sponsor of terrorism and subverter of Arab-Israeli peace efforts, is expected to have the support of national security adviser Anthony Lake in pushing for a tougher line toward Tehran.

But the Commerce Department and some other parts of the administration are reluctant to impose further restrictions on American business.

They are concerned that tougher curbs on trade with Iran could hurt American firms and workers while Iran would turn to other countries for substitute trading partners.

There have been at least two meetings recently of officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the Commerce Department and other interested agencies to weigh further moves against Iran.