THERE IS NO LEGAL COMPULSION for the United States to pay compensation for the 290 people who died when missiles from a U.S. Navy cruiser downed an Iranian jetliner July 3. But by offering cash payments to the families of those killed, President Reagan has made a wise move to defuse an unfortunate situation.

The issue of compensation has nothing to do with the question of whether the commander of the U.S.S. Vincennes should have acted otherwise when, during surface combat with Iranian gunboats, his radar detected an airplane from Iran headed for his ship. There is no reason to second-guess his actions. Deadly mistakes, unpleasant as they may be, are part and parcel of naval operations in a war zone.The Iranians are hardly in a position to be self-righteous about the U.S. attack on their civilian plane: It was their attacks upon merchant shipping

from neutral countries that led the United States and West European countries to send naval forces to the Persian Gulf in the first place. If they truly wish to reduce the risk of such incidents in the future, foreswearing attacks on merchant shipping would be a good way to start.

Offering compensation expresses the United States' regret about the July 3 tragedy without retreating from the position that foreign forces have every right to defend merchant shipping against attacks in the gulf. That is precisely the position the United States government ought to affirm.

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