Reluctant US faces broader military role in the Gulf. Iran finds ways to frustrate US tanker escort operation

A reluctant United States is on the verge of becoming even more deeply involved in policing the Persian Gulf. Whether by accident or design, Iranian missile attacks last week struck through a chink in the armor of US Gulf forces. Skittish US allies in the region may now be urging retaliation, but such an attack risks further escalation in what is becoming a direct US-Iranian conflict.

A new US move in the Gulf could come soon. Secretary of State George Shultz, traveling in the Middle East over the weekend, said ``When we have decided to take action and have taken it, you will know what it is.''

By striking at ships inside Kuwaiti territorial waters, Iran has confronted US officials with a situation similar to one they faced earlier this year, when an Iranian mine damaged the Bridgeton, a US-escorted oil tanker.

Instead of confronting the US Navy directly, Iran has bided its time and sought to exploit weaknesses in the US tanker escort operation. The Bridgeton incident pointed out that the US Gulf fleet was heavy with firepower but lacking in mundane minesweeping capability. Last week's Silkworm missile strikes took advantage of the fact that the US defensive screen does not extend into Kuwaiti home waters.

``We are seeing Iran nibble at us from around the edges,'' says Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

In the immediate aftermath of the Silkworm attacks, US officials emphasized that the whole thing had taken place outside the US self-declared area of responsibility. The implication was clearly that the US should feel under no compulsion to retaliate to prove its resolve.

But as Representative Aspin and other analysts critical of the administration's Gulf policy point out, a main purpose of the US presence is to protect Kuwait.

Iranian Silkworms have landed in Kuwaiti territory five times in recent weeks. If the US does not help defend against this threat, its commitment to the defense of its moderate Arab allies in the region could be called into question.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for their part, are clearly worried and reportedly are urging the US in private to strike back with the punch of its ever-growing Persian Gulf fleet.

But if the US were to retaliate for the Iranian attacks, perhaps with bombing runs on Silkworm sites by Navy A-6 attack planes, it would inevitably broaden its Gulf involvement. Implicitly, US officials would be saying that the defensive screen of the Navy has been extended to cover more water, and perhaps protect more ships. (One of the tankers damaged last week was US-owned but did not fly a US flag, and thus was not strictly part of the reflagging operation.)

US retaliation would also make it difficult for the Reagan administration to maintain even a pretense of neutrality in the Iran-Iraq war. The US Gulf presence would look more and more like a police action directed solely against Iran, instead of an attempt to bolster freedom of navigation against all threats.

Ironically, congressional critics of administration policies are beginning to say that it could be in the best interests of the US to openly take sides against Iran.

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released yesterday judges that the US is risking being drawn into war in the Persian Gulf. The report also concludes that Iraq appears increasingly likely to lose its land war against Iran. An Iranian victory, rather than a short-term cutoff of oil, is the principal danger to Western interests in the region, the report says.

Under a worst-case scenario, such a victory might confront the US with the difficult choice of whether to send US troops to protect sparsely populated Gulf states such as Kuwait against an Iranian military juggernaut.

Aspin says the US must make containment of Iranian ``revolutionary messianism'' the main point of its Gulf policy. He says the US must continue to push for a United Nations arms embargo against Iran, and perhaps consider an eventual naval blockade of Iranian ports.

A containment of Iran must be a world effort, not strictly an American one, adds Aspin - and that means possible involvement of the Soviet Union.

In the Pentagon, analysts are now looking for ways to try and turn the current tough situation to the long-term advantage of the US. One idea circulating is to try and gradually bring moderate Arab states into a de facto alliance with NATO. A first step toward this goal could be to make the current reflagging effort more of a NATO show, by combining US and allied warships in the region into a joint fleet.

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