Averting an act of folly in the Persian Gulf

THE Soviet Union's recent proposal that ``all warships of states not situated in the [Persian Gulf] region be shortly withdrawn'' will no doubt be well received by many in the West. So will Moscow's appeal to Iran and Iraq to ``keep from actions that could threaten international shipping'' and Mikhail Gorbachev's willingness, stated in a letter to President Reagan, to discuss the Gulf situation ``in any format.'' All constructive attempts to end the Iran-Iraq conflict, including attacks on shipping, should be applauded. But the United States ought to cast a critical eye on these Soviet offers. It is instructive that the Soviet proposal to withdraw all foreign warships from the Gulf was made by the official news agency Tass and repeated publicly by a Soviet government spokesman.

When the Soviets have something serious to communicate, they normally go through private channels. The public announcement suggests that the Soviets are more interested in shaping public opinion than in pursuing stability. It sends notice to the countries of the Persian Gulf that the US is not the only outside power willing and able to act.

Yet the offer allows Moscow to appear to be the defender of the region against the threat perceived by Iran to be posed by an expanded American presence.

The most important audience, however, is in Washington. The Soviets appreciate full well the opposition in Congress to the reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers. Moscow's proposal is designed to appeal to members who fear the risks and consequences of heightened US involvement in the Gulf. Withdrawing all foreign warships offers what might appear to some to be a painless yet responsible way out of an unwanted undertaking.

Motivating Moscow is its concern that the US will exploit the current situation to expand its role in the region. Moscow has been critical of the modest US naval presence there and of US arms sales to area states. The Soviet proposal is fashioned not only to thwart an increase in the US presence but also to eliminate its small Middle East force stationed off Bahrain for nearly 40 years.

As such, this most recent Soviet initiative is fully consistent with Soviet proposals for other parts of the world. The Soviets have, for example, long sought equal reductions of forces in Europe, knowing the resulting balance would tilt more in their favor. The intent is to appeal to the US sense of fairness and desire for peace.

Yet the reality is that equal security for the Soviets often translates into unequal insecurity for the US. The Gulf lies far closer to the USSR than to the US. The Soviets share a lengthy border with Iran and have a long history of attempts to manipulate Iranian behavior. More than 25 Soviet divisions and associated aircraft are in a position to intervene in the region; the five Soviet naval vessels in the area are little more than a symbol of interest.

The US must rely almost exclusively on surface ships and aircraft carriers to project power into this region in peacetime and crisis. A regime of mutual withdrawal of naval vessels would rebound sharply to Moscow's advantage. Indeed, US reliance on naval power to offset Soviet land power is a worldwide phenomenon; to close off international waters to US warships would set a precedent the US could come to rue.

This geographic asymmetry is matched by an asymmetry of interests. It is the US and its allies in Europe and Asia that are dependent upon the energy resources of the region; the USSR derives the lion's share of its energy needs from its own supplies. And the US has more than the USSR to worry about. US-Soviet arrangements, or even those that would rid the Gulf of all foreign vessels, would leave the US vulnerable not only to Soviet air and naval power but to the machinations of Iran. Indeed, it has been area states, namely Iran and Iraq, that have threatened regional stability; pulling out US warships in exchange for local promises of noninterference with shipping would be an act of folly.

In short, ``equal security'' in the Persian Gulf is not in the US interest. The US ought to take Moscow up on its word, challenging the Soviet Union not only to work for a cease-fire between Iran and Iraq but for a universal cessation of arms sales to both belligerents.

In addition, the administration ought to press the USSR to support sanctions against any belligerent that rejects a cease-fire. And although a limited dialogue with the USSR could prove useful in reducing the possibility that the armed forces of the two superpowers might clash, formal US-Soviet talks to end the war ought to be avoided: Not only do the two countries lack the means to accomplish this, but there is no reason to grant the USSR equal status as a would-be peacemaker in the Gulf when it has done so little to earn it.

Richard N. Haass teaches at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is writing a book on US policy toward the Persian Gulf area since 1969.

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