Reagan team debates whether Soviets are friend or foe in Gulf

The top headlines over the past week were all about elections in Britain and Italy, and maneuverings for positions in future United States elections. But behind all that, something was going on in Washington that most people probably didn't notice, but should have. There was a bitter argument at the White House over whether Washington should seize upon an opportunity for an exercise in the possibility of collaboration with Moscow.

The opportunity was provided by Kuwait, one of the world's richest and smallest (the size of New Jersey) countries. The Kuwaitis had first invited the Soviets to lease them three Soviet tankers to carry Kuwaiti oil to its markets, mostly in the West, under the Soviet flag.

Then, having secured Soviet agreement, they turned to Washington and asked it to fly the United States flag on 11 Kuwaiti tankers. They apparently expected both the Soviets and the US to protect the ships with their naval forces. The Soviets normally have three naval vessels on patrol in the Persian Gulf; the US keeps six.

Here was an unusual situation. The US and the Soviet Union were agreeing to help protect Kuwait from injury.

Were they to do it in rivalry, or in collaboration? The question must have circulated the White House for several days. It was blown to the surface last Sunday by a New York Times' report. Yuli Vorontsov, the Soviet first deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying that his government had proposed talks with the US about ways and means of bringing about an end to the Iran-Iraq war.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater reacted cautiously. He said there had been no official communications on the subject. But he called the idea of joint talks ``interesting.''

White House chief of staff Howard Baker, on television from Venice, the same day, Sunday, was enthusiastic. He said this was a ``unique'' opportunity. He said that the idea of having both Soviet and US protection for Gulf shipping represented a development that ``should not be rejected.''

But that enthusiasm was not shared by the entire Reagan establishment. Syndicated columnist William Safire is the most articulate and forthright spokesman for the hard-line, anti-Soviet wing of the Reagan community. The next day, his column called the Baker remarks ``an invitation to the Russians to share Western suzerainty of the oil fields of the Middle East.'' He labeled it ``a breathtaking geopolitical surrender'' and ``an abdication of a long-held position of strength.''

And that wasn't enough. He saw it as just one more ``telltale sign'' of ``summit-itis'' infecting the White House. He thinks Mr. Reagan is heading toward another ``Yalta,'' which is Mr. Safire's shorthand for surrender to Moscow.

It needs to be added that when Mr. Safire talks this way, you can be sure his thinking is being presented to Mr. Reagan and his advisers inside the White House, where there are still plenty who believe in eternal rivalry with Moscow. So what we are left with is a question.

Here is a remarkable opportunity. The Soviets are seeking conversations about the Gulf. In the precipitating Vorontsov statement, the assertion was made that the Soviets did not intend to increase the number of their naval patrol vessels in the Gulf, even if the US raised its numbers. The Soviets are leasing three tankers to Kuwait. They have three patrol vessels. They can protect each one.

Vorontsov's statement was what diplomats call a ``d'emarche,'' meaning the launching of a new diplomatic maneuver. Moscow has proposed joint US-Soviet efforts to bring peace to the Gulf. They say they are already talking with Iraq and Iran to that end.

Can they conceivably have come to the conclusion that an independent Middle East is safer and better for them than that eventual drive toward a port on the Indian Ocean that has been a gleam in the Russian eye ever since Peter the Great reached the Black Sea?

In Washington, some assume that anything the Soviets do is merely an interim step on the long road that would make them a power on the Indian Ocean. Would talking to them about the Gulf and perhaps even collaborating with them in patrolling it turn into a method of helping them extend their power southward? Or would it turn into a discovery that in some places and for some purposes Moscow and Washington can work together for a mutually beneficial end?

The White House is obviously moving toward an agreement with Moscow on nuclear weapons. Mr. Vorontsov suggested the agreement might be ripe for signing in October. Might there be more to it than just a single agreement on reducing or eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe?

The Safires of Washington fear something much worse: another ``d'etente.''

It is fair to deduce that a struggle is going on inside the White House over how far to go down the road of possible collaboration with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Certainly Moscow is inviting Washington to take another step down that road in the Gulf. Perhaps by next week we will know whether Mr. Reagan is tempted.

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