US stumbles as Soviets gain in Gulf. Moscow and Tehran talk while US and Iran snarl

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What President Reagan is doing in the Gulf would, back in Queen Victoria's days, be called a colonial war. It is Mr. Reagan's fourth such war, and this one has not been going well for him since the start. In the first two weeks of action Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has:

Put a hole in Mr. Reagan's first reflagged tanker.

Triggered a vicious riot in Mecca that shook Saudi rulers.

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Pushed up the world price of oil by about $1 a barrel and the price of gasoline at many gasstations around the US by a cent a gallon.

Driven a wedge between the US and its European allies.

While the US was getting into a state of increasing conflict with Iran, Moscow sent its second most important diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuli Vorontsov, to Tehran, where he discussed ``large-scale projects of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.''

In effect, Moscow thus put a friendly hand on the Ayatollah's shoulder at the very moment when he was striking at one of America's closest friends in the Gulf - Saudi Arabia - and vowing to drive the US out of the Gulf.

And at this same time, America's West European allies publicly distanced themselves from Mr. Reagan's Gulf venture by declining his request for minesweepers to help clear the way for his reflagged tankers.

Moscow continues to be the main supplier of arms to Iraq, but now it is also in friendly diplomatic conversation with Iran, hence in a position to act as a mediator between them. Mr. Reagan is doing none too well with either side. He weakened his standing with the Arabs by the attempt to trade arms for hostages with Iran, and he is now in a state of hostility with Iran.

As of this week, Moscow's position in the Gulf was growing stronger, while that of the US was getting comparatively weaker - the very thing Mr. Reagan was trying to head off by sending his reflagged tankers and his US Navy escorts into the Gulf.

Mr. Reagan has won two but lost one of his three earlier ``colonial wars.''

He tangled first with Colonel Qaddafi of Libya. He sent US naval forces into the Gulf of Sidra on May 6, 1981, and shot down two Libyan jets in an aerial dogfight. That was followed up in 1986 with two more military actions. In March, he sank two Libyan patrol vessels, also in the Gulf of Sidra, and on April 14, he bombed both Tripoli and Benghazi. Colonel Qaddafi has been quiescent since.

The second was US intervention in Lebanon in 1983, in the wake of Israel's invasion. The avowed purpose was to bolster the new government of President Amin Gemayel of Lebanon. The actual intent was to try to prevent Syria from controlling the political evolution in Lebanon. The bombing of the US Marine barracks on Oct. 23, when 241 men were killed, was followed four months later by the quiet withdrawal (called ``redeployment'') of all US military forces from Lebanon. Syria has dominated the political scene in Lebanon ever since.

But meanwhile, on Oct. 25, 1983, US troops invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada, and had ``the situation well in hand'' by day's end. It was Mr. Reagan's quickest, cheapest, and most decisive colonial victory. It helped to smother awareness of the Lebanon failure.

Now we come to colonial war No. 4, in the Gulf. The stakes are substantial. What it really amounts to is whether the US or Iran is to have the dominant voice in the Gulf. The Ayatollah has vowed to drive ``the great satan'' from the Gulf.

It is to be noted that this is also the venture, of the four, which is farthest from the US and close to the Soviet Union. US-flagged tankers loading in Kuwait are less than 800 miles from Soviet air bases in the Caucasus. The distance from Lebanon to those bases is similar.

The quick and easy victory in Grenada was deep inside America's military frontiers. The slower victory (so far) over Libya was also inside that frontier. Allied air bases on Sicily give the US control of the air in the central and eastern Mediterranean. But Soviet and US air power come into potential balance somewhere over the eastern Mediterranean. Syria and Iran could both be given Soviet land-based air cover, if Moscow wished to provide it.

Mr. Vorontsov's friendly hand on the Ayatollah's shoulder just as Khomeini was challenging the US is one of those deft diplomatic moves that Mikhail Gorbachev's Moscow so well understands.

A historical mind flashes back to that day in 1968 when Moscow had stamped out ``the Prague spring'' by a sudden and massive invasion of Czechoslovakia, and was apparently thinking of doing the same thing to Poland. As everyone held their breath, Prime Minister Chou En-lai of China arrived, unexpectedly, in Warsaw. Soviet troops had apparently been moving into position for an invasion of Poland. It did not happen.

China can play that game, too.

This time it was Moscow which used the subtlety of the diplomatic hand on the shoulder of the Ayatollah, while Washington had to realize that challenging the Ayatollah in his own lair can turn into a difficult and tricky affair.

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