Gulf states rethink role of US in Mideast

The rash of bomb attacks in the once-tranquil oil state of Kuwait may well further lower United States stock as a superpower partner for the region's moderate Arab regimes.

In the longer run, Arab political analysts predict, Monday's explosions could leave other fallout - like an escalation of Iraq's festering war with Iran or hastened reintegration of Egypt into the Arab political mainstream.

The Arab Gulf states - notably Saudi Arabia - are not about to turn to Moscow instead. The Soviets, tarred by their official atheism and their military presence in Afghanistan, are also in no better shape than the US to tame Iran's theocratic regime.

Some Arab political analysts add that Gulf leaders may even privately welcome the idea of a more muscular Reagan administration approach toward Iran and its main Arab ally, Syria. The latest hint of a more assertive US posture came Tuesday, when the Sixth Fleet fired shells in retaliation for antiaircraft barrages, presumably Syrian, on US reconnaissance jets in Lebanon.

An Islamic group claimed responsibility for the Kuwaiti attacks. Diplomats and other Arab sources in Beirut say Gulf leaders surely assume Iran, Syria, or both provided at least logistical support.

Yet the bomb attacks - on US, French, and Kuwaiti targets - are expected to encourage a growing sense among Arab Gulf states that a pooling of internal resources, and a discreetly low profile in relations with the US, can best counter threats to the region's security.

The attacks in Kuwait seem almost a metaphor for a divergence between the Americans' and Gulf states' vision of the Mideast. If the US posits a primary threat of ''Soviet expansionism,'' Arab oil states are more fearful of an open-ended Palestinian problem and - nowadays, above all - of Iran's export-brand of Muslim extremism.

Concern is particularly sharp in states like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which have sizable numbers of Shiite residents, and relatively small but advantaged Sunni Muslim populations.

Three times in the past two years, Kuwait charges, Iranian jets bombed Kuwaiti oil installations. Last month, Kuwait deported a number of Iranians on charges of attempted subversion. This move was angrily criticized by Tehran.

The idea that the US could somehow ensure Gulf security began to fray with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's toppling of the US-allied Shah of Iran in 1979. But the issue has surfaced anew with Iran's threats to block the Strait of Hormuz - through which most Gulf oil exports flow - if Iraq uses newly acquired French missiles against Iran's own oil installations.

A recent summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council - a body formed by the Arab Gulf states to counterbalance the Iranian revolution - is understood to have focused on this threat.

One respected Lebanese journalist quoted a senior Gulf official as having asked rhetorically of an American interlocutor before the session: How can the US provide protection when unable to curb even ''a bunch of gunmen'' in Lebanon?

He is also quoted as saying that even if the US were to respond by providing some visible military presence there, this could be at best a temporary solution.

Kuwait has joined fellow Arab Gulf states in bankrolling Iraq's multibillion-dollar war effort against Iran. But Kuwait has also resisted Saudi efforts for a formal defense alliance among the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

The Saudis' reaction to the bomb attacks was to call for ''more cooperation and collaboration among Muslims and Arabs.'' Iraq Tuesday vowed military action against Iranian targets in response to the explosions in Kuwait.

But one Arab analyst, whose vision of regional politics has proved sharp in the past, cited other possibly long-term effects.

''For the Saudis and other Gulf states, the burning issue is how to reestablish a regional equilibrium to balance the influence of Iran and Syria. . . .''

''Looking at the alternatives, there is one that seems the most likely: to bring Egypt, which is already virtually reconciled with Iraq, back into the Arab fold and further strengthen the Iraqis militarily in the war on Iran.''

Some Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, are understood to have been lukewarm toward Egypt's renewed closeness with Iraq.

''The Saudis know very well that once Egypt is really back in the fold, particularly at a time of soft oil prices, the regional importance of the Gulf states will be less than in the recent past.

''But,'' concludes the analyst, ''the Kuwait explosions seem to suggest that events may force the reintegration more quickly than had been expected.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.