By agreeing this week to release the nearly 3,300 Soviet citizens being held hostage in Iraq, strongman Saddam Hussein is clearly trying to divide the world alliance against him.

Beyond that aspect of the ploy, though, some potentially valuable lessons can be learned from Saddam's move and from the Soviet threats that brought it on.Until recently, Baghdad had insisted that the Soviets being held in Iraq - mostly oil workers - could not leave until after their contracts had expired. But that wasn't good enough for Moscow, which last week warned it would use military force against Iraq if Soviet hostages were harmed.

The fact that Moscow felt it necessary to make such a threat can be considered a vote of no confidence in the notion that economic sanctions are all that's needed to drive Iraq out of Kuwait if only the sanctions are imposed long enough.

Likewise, Iraq's reaction to the Soviet threat can be considered a tacit admission that President Bush is wise in enhancing America's potential for acting from strength rather than relying exclusively on economic pressure and diplomacy.

But it's still much too soon to abandon sanctions and diplomacy altogether. These tactics should be pursued as long as there's a reasonable chance they could be effective in releasing Saddam's grip on the 2,000 other hostages still in Iraq, including about 88 Americans.

Saddam has said he would free all hostages between Christmas and March 25, provided the United States and its allies do not take military action. Admittedly, his promises cannot be trusted. Moreover, the period between Christmas and March 25 is considered the optimal time for an offensive to drive Iraq from Kuwait.

Even so, there is ample reason for continued patience. Well before the Soviet Union started threatening its former ally, Iraq had been releasing some hostages. Certainly it makes sense to get as many of them freed as possible even if armed conflict can't be avoided.

What about the risks of delay? As time goes by, isn't the anti-Iraq coalition between the West and Arabs likely to fall apart? No, not as long as Iraq presents a potential threat to Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbors, which it clearly does as long as Saddam is in power. What about the continuing impact on oil prices as long as Iraq occupies Kuwait? That impact seems to have run its course and the various economies dependent on oil seem to have adjusted. As it is now, oil prices climb in response to rumors of war in the Persian Gulf and decline in response to increased prospects of peace there.

With the promised release of Soviet hostages, won't Moscow have less incentive to help put pressure on Iraq to leave Kuwait? Maybe. But Moscow can get soft on Iraq only at the risk of weakening its growing ties to the West - ties that hold the prospect of less tension and eventually more prosperity for the Soviet Union.