Thanks to the release of the hostages on Inauguration Day, new United States President Ronald Reagan can build an entirely new strategy toward Middle East oil. The old strategy had collapsed in disaster. Release of the hostages wiped the slate clean. The stage is set now for something better.
The old strategy, selected by Lyndon Johnson and pursued to its ultimate collapse through the presidencies of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, was to use the Shah of Iran as the agent for US interests in the Gulf area, and as the protector of those interests.
It was strategy sold to the Johnson administration by the Shah in 1968. The Shah wanted the job and the money and prestige that would (and did) come to him from being the US agent for the whole area.
US strategy for the Middle East was up for consideration in 1968 because the British, who had patrolled the Gulf, kept the peace, and protected the oil route to the outside world for over a century, had decided thay they could no longer afford to keep up a British military presence in the area. The British force there was not big. It consisted of five air squadrons, two infantry battalions, and a few light patrol boats occasionally stiffened by a visiting destroyer or frigate. It was not a major or an expensive military force, but it had kept the peace.
However, the British decided in early 1968 to give up all of their military establishments east of Suez except for a police force at Hong Kong. Everything else had to go, including the Gulf force. The date for final withdrawal was set for 1971.
They then informed the US Embassy in London and talks were opened to explore the possibility of having the US either take over the peace-keeping role in the Gulf, or subsidize the British force. the British government agreed to make the exception to is withdrawal plan and keep its force in the Gulf, provided the US would share the cost. A figure mentioned at the time was a little as $12 million a year.
David Bruce was US Ambassador in London. He recommended to Washington that it either subsidize the British force or send in a US force to replace the British as the British pulled out.
But meanwhile the Shah of Iran had been negotiating with the Soviets. Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin came to Tehran in April of 1968 to conclude a deal. It called for most of iran's production of natural gas going to the Soviet Union in return for a steel mill, a pipeline, various lesser industrial items -- and $110 million worth of Soviet weapons.
Having thus demonstrated both his ability and his willingness to deal with the Soviets, the Shah then went to Washington and asked for permission to buy $ 600 million worth of US weapons over the next five years.
So President Johnson in 1968 had a choice of three different strategies for protecting US interests in the Gulf: He cold subsidize a continued British presence; he culd put a small US force in to replace the British as they pulled out; or he could use the Shah. He chose the Shah -- and we all know the rest of that story.
The release of the hostages on Inauguration Day was the final denouement to a sad story with a lesson. Don't rely on one person to look after your interests for you -- especially when those interests are as important as the flow of oil from the Gulf to the modern industrial countries of Western Europe, the Americas , and Japan.
One very bad feature of the strategy of using the Shah was that it built Iran into the strongest country in the Middle East, thus arousing the envy, and fear, of the others. None of the Arab countries was happy about Iran becoming so important and powerful. US support for the Shah weakened US credit in both Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
All the past is relevant to the future.
If the US tries to build good relations equally with allm of the Gulf countries, it will avoid one reason for the failure of the old strategy. True, it is very much in the interests of the United States to help prevent the collapse of the Persian empire, which Iran really is. The fragmentation of Iran would probably be an irresistible opportunity for Moscow to move. US interests call for a unified, economically sound, and friendly Iran.
But US interests were not served, and would not be served in the future, by a second experiment in making Iran the dominant power in the area. A balance between Iraq and Iran would be safer and sounder.
Mr. Reagan does not have the range of choices in building a new Gulf strategy that Lyndon Johnson had back in 1968. But he does have the benefit of the past experience. At least, he cannot be tempted to use Iran again as the prime vehicle for US interests in the area. Iran does not want to be known as a US agent. Quite the reverse. It presumably will be some time before anything like easy and normal relations can be reestablished between Iran and the US.
Nor is there any chance of going back to the policy of subsidizing a British military presence in the Gulf. The sands ran out on that when the British actually left in 1971.
hey may come back in a more modest form. British ships now join US, Australian, and French ships in joint maneuvers in the Indian Ocean. It is conceivable that the British would agree to put some force back into the area in support of US forces.
But if there is to be a return to the Gulf by any outside power it will almost certainly have to be in the form of that third option that Lyndon Johnson rejected in 1968 -- a US force doing what it can to protect the oil pipeline and keep the peace among the countries of the Middle East.
The first steps toward this have already been taken in the form of former President Carter's Rapid Deployment Force. The more interesting part of building that force lies ahead. It is easy enough to allocate military units and the necessary equipment now in the US to that force, and make contingency plans for its deployment. Much of this work has already been done.
The next step is to negotiate with countries in the area for suitable landing and basing rights. Opportunities are unlimited, but there will be some vigorous bargaining along the way. The Egyptians, for example, are happy to offer the use of seaports on their Red sea coast for both air and naval use. But the Pentagon would like to have it all tied up by formal contract with a specific number of years. President Sadat of Egypt says no to such a formal document with a time clause.
There are plenty of potential naval and air bases in the area. Talks are going on with Somalia, Kenya, and Oman. And there is also the line of communication that calls for arrangements with, perhaps, Morocco and/or Algiers. But for every such arrangement there must be a quid pro quo. Mr. Reagan has a lot of diplomatic work ahead of him before he can set up what Lyndon johnson could have had for $12 million a year from the Brittish in 1968.