HAVING a right to do something does not necessarily mean that it is prudent to do it. The United States has a right to play the role of policeman in the Gulf. The US is the appointed heir to the old British international waterway. The US is the largest and best armed of all the customers in the outside world of the oil that comes from the Gulf. The US was invited to play its present role by Kuwait, a riparian Arab state.
But none of that means it was wise or prudent to do what has been done.
The avowed purpose of the action was to protect international shipping in the Gulf.
But what is done for one reason may have a different effect. In this case the effect is to attempt to deprive Iran of a military asset.
The military situation is that Iraq has been striking at Iran's main oil export terminal on Karg Island and at tankers taking Iranian oil from there to the outside world. Iran has been replying in kind indirectly by striking at tankers from Arab states friendly to Iraq. Each time Iraq has attacked an Iranian tanker, Iran has retaliated by attacking an Arab tanker.
American intrusion into this situation is an attempt to deny to Iran its indirect method of retaliating against the attacks by its enemy on its oil exports.
In other words, whatever the avowed or intended US purpose, the actual effect of convoying tankers from Kuwait to the outside world is military intervention in the Gulf war on the side of Iraq and to the disadvantage of Iran. It is a military action against Iran which denies to Ayatollah Khomeini the freedom he would otherwise have to reduce the flow of Arab oil from the Gulf.
The avowed purpose of US intervention in Lebanon in 1983 was to sustain the government of Lebanon. The military effect was to intervene in the civil war on the side of the Christian Phalangist faction against the Shiite and Druze factions. Retaliation came in the form of the car bomb that destroyed the barracks of the US Marines, killing 241.
We are probably just beginning to learn how broad is the range of the Ayatollah's opportunities for retaliation. Take a look at the chronology.
July 24. The first ``reflagged'' US tanker hits a mine. Its US naval escort falls in line behind the damaged tanker to avoid other possible mines. We are told that a tanker is less vulnerable to mines than a warship.
July 31. Iranian ``pilgrims'' in Mecca stage an unauthorized political demonstration, including a march against Saudi police. When the shooting is over, 85 Saudi police and 275 Iranian ``pilgrims'' are dead.
Aug 2. Iranian parliamentary Speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani tells a roaring mob outside the parliament building in Tehran they must ``avenge these martyrs by uprooting Saudi rulers from the region.''
Saudi Arabia is the closest of all the countries in the region to the United States. Its weapons are provided by the US. Its men are trained by the US. US crews man its AWACS planes and monitor its airspace.
When President Reagan wanted outside funds to keep the Nicaraguan contras going after Congress cut off military aid to them, Saudi Arabia made the biggest voluntary contribution - $20 million.
Saudi Arabia is the keystone of America's military and political position in the Gulf. De facto if not de jure, Saudi Arabia is America's main base and main ally in the Gulf area. The overthrow of the Saudi monarchy is about the worst thing that could possibly happen to the American military and political position in the Gulf.
There is no room for serious doubt about what caused the rioting in Mecca. The Ayatollah had told the delegation of Iranian pilgrims before they left Iran that ``mass marches and demonstrations must be held during the pilgrimage.'' The rioting was a deliberate attack on the Saudi monarchy, hence on US interest in the Gulf.
If the Saudi monarchy falls, the Ayatollah will be the dominant force in the Gulf. The Ayatollah is a formidable opponent. Flagging the tankers was a challenge to him.
Was it prudent?