Gulf leadership

SAUDI Arabia and other Gulf states are trying hard to dampen the Iran-Iraq war without a diplomatic or military assist from the United States. The Arab League put aside its unanimity rule and voted, over the objections of Syria and Libya, to label Iran the aggressor. The Saudis are trying to show some leadership in the crisis, which has brought oil vessels under fire. Gulf representatives have gone to Japan to see what slight influence Japan can bring to the war.

Lessons for the United States in this: America has long seriously overestimated how much leverage it has in the Gulf. The Gulf nations, having gotten rid of foreign forces, deeply prefer alternatives to a US or European role. The best policy at the moment is to wait things out and hope the Gulf-state initiatives work.

Vice-President George Bush, stopping in Oman en route back from his two-week Asian-Pacific mission, put it correctly: ''The whole world would welcome'' an end to the 44-month-old war, he said, ''but I don't see a role for the United States in such negotiations at this juncture.''

A month ago, anticipating a widening of the war into the sea lanes, the administration apparently sought to learn what kind of cooperation it could get if, say, US aid were needed to convoy ships safely in the area. But the Gulf states seem to like having the US fleet outside the Strait of Hormuz for some undefined contingency reserve. Pre-positioning of US forces was again rebuffed.

Gulf states want to call on the US only in extreme circumstances, for three reasons: A US role might give Persian Iran further pretext for attacking Arab states in the Gulf; the Soviets might be brought actively into the area; and stronger Shiite/Arab antagonism, in the guise of anti-Americanism, could spread throughout the Mideast.

At the moment, Oman alone offers the US a facility, chiefly an airfield, on an island in the Gulf. The arrangement was negotiated under President Carter in 1979, as were similar facilities in Somalia and Kenya. The Oman facility was used in the failed US-hostage mission inside Iran. In January 1980 Carter declared: ''An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by use of any means necessary, including military force.''

The so-called Carter doctrine and creation of a rapid-deployment force were all along based on the questionable assumption that the Gulf states would want to call on the Americans in time of trouble.

Any efforts by Saudi Arabia, Japan, or anyone else to mediate the Iran-Iraq conflict should be allowed to take their own course. Frustrating as it may be, the best the non-Gulf powers can do is offer assistance until such time as it is wanted.

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