A string of Portuguese islands in mid-Atlantic may hold the key to the present Middle East conflict, just as it did when the Arab-Israeli war broke out in 1973.
Seven years after that war, the US air base at Lajes in the Azores archipelago would still be the logical first stop for planes ferrying arms and equipment from the United States to the war zone. Now, however, the United States may not find it as easy to obtain the necessary Portuguese approval.
Should Iran and the United States agree on an arms-for-hostages deal, the quickest and easiest way to airlift the $550 million worth of military equipment ordered by the Tehran regime before the seizure of the US Embassy would be to go through Lajes first. But Portuguese government officials are saying the Lisbon administration will veto any such move while the Gulf war is on so as not to upset Iraq, Portugal's main oil supplier.
The only alternative US bases through which such an airlift could be organized are the four in Spain. The Madrid government, however, has consistently refused to allow the United States to use the bases in any way that might jeopardize Arab-Spanish relations. In 1973, for instance, the Spaniards refused to allow American transport planes carrying arms to Israel to refuel in any of the US bases in Spain.
The Americans have once before been threatened with a Portuguese veto on the use of Lajes for any mission against the Arabs. That was in 1975, when a pro-communist government was in power at the height of the Portuguese revolution.
A furious Henry Kissinger said at the time that the US had alternative plans for supplying Israel in the event of a new Middle East conflict should Portugal ban the use of Lajes, but he admitted it would be much more complicated and involve a longer route.
James Schlesinger, then defense secretary, said the United States had begun experiments with refueling giant C-5A Galaxy transports in midair to get around the problem of a Portuguese veto on Lajes. However, that still raises the political problem of which country on the other side of the Atlantic would allow the necessary KC-135 mother-tankers to be stationed on its soil.
Arab diplomats in Lisbon are skeptical about how effectively Portugal could stop the United States from using Lajes for any Middle East missions. The Portuguese reply is that under the terms of the 1979 agreement renewing the lease on the base, the United States must seek Portugal's prior approval before sending through any flights on non-NATO missions. The Americans, however, only have to tell the Portuguese where their planes are ultimately going -- not what they are carrying or for whom.
The realization of the role that Lajes, 2,500 nautical miles from the US Eastern Seaboard, could play in the war prompted the Iraqi Embassy in Lisbon to demand assurances from the Portuguese government that the United States would not be allowed to use the airfield to fly spare parts to the Iranian armed forces.
Portuguese officials say the government is determined not to have a repetition of the Arab oil embargo imposed against Portugal because of Lajes after the 1973 war.
Officials here are instead pointing a discreet finger at Morocco, where the US used to maintain an air base at Kenitra, on the Atlantic seaboard north of Rabat until the early 1960s. From there the planes would have to fly to US bases in Egypt, Kenya, or Somalia to reach the Gulf.