Superpowers' opportunity in the Gulf

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INTERNATIONAL politics in the Persian Gulf is making a pair of most unlikely bedfellows - the United States and the Soviet Union. Both superpowers, who are otherwise rivals for position and influence, are moving to protect Kuwaiti tankers from Iranian attack. The situation is not only full of irony; it offers many possibilities for improving American-Soviet relations and perhaps even altering the political landscape of the Middle East.

Not the least of the ironies is the fact that the ponderous US bureaucracy did not begin to take the Kuwaiti overtures seriously until after the USSR expressed willingness to protect the tankers. Then US protection was seen as necessary to counter the Soviet presence.

Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf - let alone Soviet hegemony - has long been a recurring nightmare of US strategic thinkers. Soviet ambitions in this direction have been attributed to the historical Russian yearning for warm water ports. Moscow's responsiveness to Kuwait's problems may have been simply another step in the pursuit of this ancient dream. Whatever the Soviet motives, the actions certainly got Washington's attention.

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Without the Soviet presence in the Gulf, there would be little reason for an American presence. Notwithstanding the clumsy efforts of the Reagan administration to deal with the Iranian government, it remains not in the interests of the US for Iran to win its war with Iraq. There are ways to keep that from happening short of injecting the US Navy into a restricted body of water where it will have little room for maneuver and where its air power will have to contend with the Hawk missiles that its government sent to the Iranians.

Establishment of the Soviet pseudo-protectorate of Kuwait, or at least of part of the Kuwaiti tanker fleet, changes all this. There are good reasons not to abandon the Gulf to the Soviets. But the best reason to extend US protection to at least some Kuwaiti tankers is the opportunity this provides to develop a collaborative relationship with the Soviets.

In most other parts of the world where there are both American and Soviet interests, the relationship ranges from competitive to hostile. Now the situation developing in the Persian Gulf will have both superpowers doing the same thing for the same purpose. The only comparable situation which comes to mind is in the Antarctic. That collaboration has remained small because of distances, weather, logistics, and the small numbers of people involved, but it has at least proved that Russians and Americans can work together on technical and scientific matters.

It is premature to speculate about a joint Soviet-American Persian Gulf naval command. But it will be a change for the better to have Soviets and Americans watching Iranians instead of each other.

Further possibilities are open. Kuwaiti oil is much more important to Europe and Japan than it is to the US. Japan does not have a navy, but Europe - NATO - does. (And Japan has plenty of yen to defray part of the cost of protecting its oil supplies, but that is a separate problem). NATO even has multilateral naval commands. Why cannot NATO assume some of the responsibility of protecting oil in the Persian Gulf? The objection that the Gulf is outside the area covered by the North Atlantic Treaty should not be insuperable.

If NATO, and the US as a part of NATO, and the USSR were all engaged in the same collaborative project in the Persian Gulf, who knows what it might lead to? It might lead to the realization all around that the parties had more common interests than they supposed. It might lead to some modest resuscitation of the moribund United Nations Security Council. It might even spread in the Middle East to a broader effort to ameliorate Arab-Israeli differences.

The valid objection to spreading Soviet influence in the Middle East has been that the Soviets would use it to cause trouble and to further inflame an already turbulent region. If they establish a record of behaving otherwise, for which the Persian Gulf provides an opportunity, then they can be welcomed as a partner rather than shunned as a pariah.

Such a time is far in the future, if it ever comes. But there is a chance now to move a little closer to it. The Reagan administration probably does not have the wit to do this. But if nothing more happens than Americans and Rusians serving the same purposes in the same area without anybody planning it, that is progress. And the Kuwaiti official who first said, ``Hey, why don't we ask both the Russians and Americans?'' ought to get the Nobel Peace Prize.

Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on Foreign affairs from Washington.

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