A US "quarantine" of Iran-bound ships before they enter the Persian Gulf may be in the offing. To enforce trade sanctions against Iran, ships from the Pacific Fleet could selectively halt and inspect the cargoes of ships heading for Iran -- much as the US temporarily monitored Cuba-bound cargoes during the missile crisis of 1962.
"Make no mistake," says one senior staff officer of the Navy's rear Pacific Fleet bases here. "A full blockade or the mining of Iranian ports would be viewed as technically an act of war."
However, "a quarantine," says Vice-Adm. Robert (Dutch) Schoultz, commander of the Pacific Fleet's air operations, " could be highly selective and not difficult to enforce in the Arabian Sea."
US carrier forces, Admiral Schoultz pointed out in an interview here, would provide protective air cover for American surface ships, "imposing air superiority in case of need."
Two US aircraft carriers, the Coral Sea and the nuclear-powered Nimitz, with about 200 planes, now are at the Navy's new "Camel station," as air crews call it, in the Arabian Sea near Iran. About 25 other Navy ships escort them.
Both carriers belong to the thinly stretched Pacific Fleet. About May 8, the Nimitz's sister carrier, the Eisenhower, sailing from its Atlantic Fleet home port in Norfolk, Va., will replace the Nimitz, whose crew has had no shore leave for nearly five months.
The carrier Kitty Hawk, now resting in port here, was deployed nine months before the Coral Sea relieved it last month.
Admiral Schoultz says flatly that no US carriers will pass through the Strait of Hormuz to enter the Gulf itself, within close range of shore or sea-based Iranian missiles and combat planes.
Shoaly waters, many islands, and overlapping territorial and oil claims of the Gulf emirates and Iran further complicate the situation for the Navy in the Gulf.
"Don't forget," Admiral Schoultz adds, "that the Soviet presence around the Gulf -- in Afghanistan, South Yemen, Ethiopia -- has put the area into a kind of pincers. The key is really Saudi Arabia." The latter country is friendly to the United STates but does not permit US operations from its soil, other than training for its own US-supplied armed forces.
Admiral Schoultz and Vice-Adm. Lee Baggett Jr., commander of Pacific Fleet surface forces, acknowledge the danger to US supply lines in the Pacific from the growing Soviet bases in Vietnam, especially Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay. Both were built by the US during the Vietnam war, then abandoned.
"In a war situation," Admiral Schoultz says, "they could certainly try to use Vietnam to interdict our sea lines of communication."
Soviet air surveillance of US Indian Ocean ships is, so far, "routine and highly predictable," he says. Soviet IL-38 patrol planes, based at Aden, South Yemen, fly as regularly as clockwork.
None of the new Soviet air bases in embattled Afghanistan are yet used for supporting Indian Ocean naval forces or for surveillance of the US fleet. "Of course, they could do so at any time," says Admiral Schoultz.
US Navy pilots on the carriers at Camel station are eager for a quarantine, blockade, or even -- if President Carter gives the order -- combat, says Comdr. Brian Harvey, who recently returned from Camel station.
Commander Harvey, who commands squadron VS-29, a much-decorated group operating 3-A Viking antisubmarine planes, says the pilots and air crews have been eager since last November to act to free the American hostages in Tehran.
Admiral Schoultz explains: "Your're training and training for months to prepare for an action. Then you find yourself sitting out there, waiting. You pass a time of peak anticipation, and people get frustrated."