Gulf tension prompts calls for new look at US policy. Study faults reflagging effort, but says UN role is best way to end war

With tension in the Gulf heightened, concern is rising here over a possible escalation of military action. Support for United States presence and steadfastness in the Gulf region remains strong, but the new challenges are generating calls for a new look at US policy. A study prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee critically reviews the situation.

The report, prepared by three committee staff members who visited the Gulf, faults US policy for ``nebulous'' objectives and for inviting ``more Iranian attacks of increasing severity.'' But it agrees with the Reagan administration that a victory by Iran over Iraq ``would be catastrophic for Western interests,'' and recommends a UN-brokered end to the war.

The report reveals general agreement in Washington on the following:

Tanker war. Iran has little objective interest in closing the Gulf, since it exports practically all of its income-gaining oil by sea, while Iraq's oil leaves by pipeline. This, however, is precisely why Iraq strikes Iranian-related shipping, the report says. This, in turn, invites Iranian counter attacks in the Gulf.

US-Iran ties. US-Iran reconciliation requires basic changes in Iran's behavior and must remain only a long-term objective for the post-Khomeini era. The US ``strategic initiative'' toward Iran, in which the administration provided weapons and spare parts, severely undermined Arab confidence in the US and helped Iran militarily, the report says.

Balance in the war. Iraq is out-manned and perhaps out-motivated by Iran, and its strategic economic and population centers are more vulnerable than Iran's. Iraq has made up for this advantage with superior and more military hardware. It is unclear, though, how long Iraq will be able to resist, but it has no chance now of winning the war, according to the report.

US strategic interest. Washington has immense interest in preventing an Iraqi defeat. An Iraqi loss would probably establish Iranian hegemony in the Gulf and send shock waves of Islamic fundamentalism from Pakistan to Egypt to Tunisia, further undermining US friends and forcing even greater US involvement.

Support for Gulf Arabs. The US should show support for the moderate Gulf Arabs and, now that American forces are committed, Washington should not take precipitous moves that would undermine already shaky views of US reliability, the report says.

Aid to Iraq. Direct forms of US aid to Iraq, other than economic credits, don't make sense, the report says. Iraq doesn't need US military hardware nor does the US seek strategic ties with Baghdad.

The UN. The real key is ending the war, and the best means is international mediation by the UN, says the report. If Iran continues to resist a cease-fire, the Senate report recommends a UN embargo on lethal and nonlethal military equipment and an economic boycott. Senior US officials agree: The problem is getting other countries on board, they say.

The report also brings to light areas of continuing disagreement over US policy:

The reflagging effort. The Senate report echoes charges that the decision to reflag and protect Kuwaiti tankers was made hastily and on poor rationale. The authors conclude that the US presence has made shipping in the Gulf less safe than before. They say the chances are high for ``mishaps and retaliatory escalation,'' while US forces remain ``prisoner'' to continued Iraqi attacks on Iran's shipping and Iranian responses.

Reagan administration Gulf specialists say Iran began to attack Kuwait's shipping in late summer 1986, in order to hit Iraq's supply lines through Kuwait, since Iraq was resisting well in the ground war. At this point, Kuwait sought help.

Washington agreed, these specialists say, primarily because it is in US national interests to protect moderate Arab regimes from revolutionary Iran. The officials say the risks are worth the long-term benefits for US influence throughout the region.

The Senate report offered no alternative to reflagging, but other critics, including former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Newsom, argue in favor of a multilateral naval force, perhaps under the UN flag, as a way to provide a neutral guarantee for shipping. This idea has some support among US officials, but poses operational difficulties and offers Moscow an opportunity to gain an expanded role in the Gulf, officials say.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and others are calling for internationalizing the effort among Western nations.

Soviet influence. The US is working with Moscow in the UN to end the war, but officials maintain that growing Soviet influence in the region is a danger. The authors of the Senate report argue that ``there is little likelihood of Soviet political encroachments among Gulf Arab states,'' because of their mistrust and basic differences with Moscow. This issue divides critics and supporters of US policy, however.

US goals. The Senate report shares the criticism of many that US goals in the Gulf are confused.

The authors debunk two rationales for US policy in addition to Soviet encroachment: (1)to ensure the free flow of oil, which the authors say is not jeopardized since export pipelines are increasingly used; (2)the threat to navigation in the Gulf, which they contend ``would likely cease if Iraq halted its attacks in the Gulf.''

But the report's authors omit what senior officials say is the most important reason for US policy - defending Gulf Arabs. Nevertheless, the report argues that the US mission for the forces in the Gulf is ``overly broad'' and ``risks an open-ended commitment of forces.''

Taking sides. The Senate report says current US policy amounts to strong ``involvement on Iraq's side.'' But the report adds that the US has a vital interest in preventing an Iraqi defeat and in aiding the relatively weak Gulf Arabs.

The report reinforces Iraq's importance by giving a more pessimistic assessment of Iraq's ability to resist Iran than most US intelligence analysts do. However, US analysts fully agree with the thrust of the report - the worst case dangers for the US (if Iran wins) would be catastrophic.

US officials argue that some appearance of tilting is inevitable. Critics counter that today's lean is too great. Some say US belligerence is strengthening the hands of radicals in Tehran. Others, including some US diplomats, say Washington has to be tougher with Iraq for its Gulf attacks to retain balance and credibility for UN peace efforts.

Senior US officials agree the US needs to preserve neutrality, but add that Iraq is ready for a cease-fire under the UN plan while Tehran is not.

Also still unresolved is in which other ways the US should show support for Gulf Arabs and what to ask for in return. The Senate report details the Gulf Arab state's quest and need for US arms, but such requests have met congressional opposition before.

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