CONTAINMENT of the Soviet Union, or at least the taming of its less-benign actions, has been a preoccupation of American foreign policy since 1945. Afghanistan is both the apotheosis of the need for this policy and the evidence of its shortcomings. The Reagan administration agreed to escort reflagged Kuwaiti tankers through the Strait of Hormuz allegedly to prevent the USSR from deploying a virtual monopoly of naval force in the Persian Gulf. Now the US must think hard about the purpose of this policy, lest the tactics begin to unseat the strategy.
For the United States, there are three reasons to enter the Gulf despite belated allied support and a local balance of military power that can never be regarded as propitious.
The need to keep the sea lanes open for the movement of crude oil, even though the United States imports only a fraction of the outflow. In the absence of better tactical options, policing the sea lanes, one might argue, is the price of political leadership.
The objective of ensuring equilibrium and security in the Iraq-Iran war, not victory for Iran, and if possible an amicable and timely end to the dispute. Holding the trump card of control over oil exiting the region could help.
While the Soviets at the moment seem to have their hands full, a continuing necessity is to prevent the expansion of Soviet influence into the Gulf area beyond Afghanistan.
However these objectives may be ranked as to importance, either with forethought, or merely with hindsight, the danger is that the pursuit of the first two objectives may destroy the third. US policy ironically may facilitate Soviet expansion, not prevent it.
If the US allows the dynamic of rocket attack and counterpunch to entice it into an expansion of the war, first through the destruction of naval and shore targets, later through denial of installation use and even possible limited territorial occupation, these tactics may drive Iran to seek assistance from the only government that can offer such assistance in a convincing way, the USSR. No matter that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini equates Moscow, too, with ``the Great Satan,'' or that Islamic fundamentalism is the antithesis of communist value. Iran is isolated today. It has no other source of potential massive support.
However much the members of the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries detest Iranian extremism, they know the limits that surround Iranian behavior. The Revolutionary Guards do behave stupidly.
If pushed very hard, however, the government of Iran will run scared. It will turn to the Soviet Union to protect it.
The embrace may be more than Iran can tolerate. In an interval of transition away from the Ayatollah's rule, the USSR could invite itself in. For Iran is the great prize along the Soviet southern border, far greater than Afghanistan, but fully complementary to it.
To push Iran into the Soviet embrace is not desired policy. Unthinkable as it is at the moment, Iran may eventually discover that the United States, following British example, is the singular major power without territorial ambitions that can be Iran's natural ally. A balanced, firm, but restrained tactic of policing the strait, while pursuing other techniques of conflict resolution, is thus the only route to a happy end to the present involvement.
Charles F. Doran is professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.