The Iraqi air strike on the USS Stark is being seen in the Middle East as the first major test for Washington's post-Irangate policy of buttressing the Arab states of the Gulf region against any Iranian threat. The incident, following hot on the heels of damage to two Soviet vessels in the Persian Gulf in the space of 10 days, also highlights the unpredictable dangers raised by the recent intensification of superpower involvement in the region.
Following a spate of Iranian attacks on ships bound to or from Kuwait, both Washington and Moscow responded to Kuwait's requests for help in protecting its shipping. Washington is close to completing an agreement whereby half of Kuwait's 22-ship tanker fleet will be registered in the United States and fly the American flag, thus qualifying for US Naval escorts. The Soviets have chartered three Soviet tankers to Kuwait.
In recent months, the Iranians have targeted ships traveling to or from Kuwait for nearly all of the 21 strikes carried out in reprisal for Iraq's continuing campaign of attacks on Iranian tankers.
The assumption has been that Iran would back away from tangling with the superpowers. But that assumption was swiftly cast into doubt on May 6, when Iranian gunboats rocketed the Soviet freighter Ivan Korotoyev near the southern end of the Gulf. Ten days later, one of the three Soviet tankers leased to Kuwait hit a mine and was badly damaged some 30 miles off the Kuwaiti coast.
These incidents were accompanied by statements from Iranian leaders warning that Tehran would not be deterred by superpower intervention. ``If Kuwait thinks that by putting itself under the protection of the big powers it can continue to help Iraq without being exposed to danger, it is wrong,'' said Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi. ``The presence of the superpower navies in the Gulf cannot prevent the Iranian people from answering one blow with another.''
The Iranian gunboat assault on the Soviet ship was clearly in line with Iranian policy. Published reports have said Iranian attacks on the Soviet ship and other third-party vessels were carried out by Iranian revolutionary guards using rocket-equipped speedboats.
The attack on the Stark is in a different category. It was way out of line with Iraqi policy, and Baghdad expressed its ``profound regret'' over the incident, which US officials described from the outset as a mistake.
But American vessels are clearly subject to the same risk from Iran as are the Soviets. Iranian officials have assailed the US not only for efforts to protect Kuwaiti shipping, but also for its political stance supporting stronger measures by the UN Security Council to bring an end to the Gulf conflict.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement May 9 said the US would face ``irreparable defeats'' if it intervened in Gulf affairs.
The risks of deeper US involvement in the Gulf were grimly illustrated by the death of 28 sailors aboard the Stark even before efforts to protect Kuwaiti shipping had gotten under way. Some Arab sources voiced fears the incident might deter Washington from going ahead with the plan.
``I hope this will not affect the American commitment to Kuwait and the flagging of its ships,'' one Iraqi source said. ``This is a test case for the American commitment to the Gulf. If Iran feels it can get away with blockading Kuwait and disrupting its exports, it really means there are no more red lines in the area.''
US policy in the Gulf was expressed most recently by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy on a tour of Iraq and the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council between May 9 and 14. ``The purpose of this trip is to emphasize the importance we attach to our ties with Iraq and the members of the [council], and to reaffirm our commitment to the security of the region,'' he declared.
Arab observers saw Mr. Murphy's tour as directed toward repairing damage done by Washington's sale of arms to Iran. Kuwait's request for protection, they say, provided a tangible way for the US to express its commitment to stability in the region. Without such expression, Washington also risked leaving the field open to the Soviets, regional analysts say.
For those reasons, some Arab sources doubted that the Stark incident would prompt a US turnabout - though some feared that the vital issues at stake might get lost in ``another round of domestic American infighting.''