THE big question in Congress this week is whether to let President Reagan send more United States naval vessels into the Gulf. But before reaching a decision on that question, Congress should first give serious thought to the possibility of solving the problem of the Gulf in a different way, because, for once, there may be a different and safer way available.
What is the purpose of US policies in the Gulf?
The purpose, which everyone in the administration, in the Congress, and in the Western alliance supports, is the protection of the flow of oil out of the Gulf to the outside world.
What endangers that flow of oil?
The existence of a war between Iran and Iraq which is now in its seventh year and in a condition of stalemate on land.
The military stalemate on land has caused the two belligerents to take their war to sea and attempt to injure each other by attacking the flow of oil. Iraq opened this phase of the war because it is superior in air power to Iran and because most of the flow of oil from Iran to the outside world goes through the Gulf. Iran has retaliated against tankers carrying oil from Kuwait because Kuwait, while not a declared belligerent in the war, gives financial aid to Iraq. Iraq's normal access to the sea is blocked by Iranian armies.
Kuwait has turned to both the Soviet Union and the US for protection for its own tankers. The Soviets have leased three tankers to Kuwait. The US is proposing to put the US flag on 11 Kuwaiti tankers. The Soviets have three naval vessels in the Gulf to protect ships carrying their flag. The US has six for the same purpose.
But neither the Soviets nor the Americans have considered doing anything to protect Iranian tankers from attack by Iraqi aircraft.
The net effect of going ahead along the course now in process would amount to the US and USSR jointly making it possible for Iraq to continue attacking Iranian tankers in relative impunity from retaliation against tankers carrying oil from Kuwait. Such a course would be taking sides in the war. It would amount to an act of joint hostility against Iran.
The remarkable thing is that the Soviets in this respect are doing exactly the same thing as the US is. They are helping the Kuwaitis. Notice further that the Soviets say they have no thought of increasing the number of their naval vessels operating in the Gulf. They say they would like to talk to the US about joint steps to end the war in the Gulf.
Here, therefore, is a case where the interests of the USSR and of the US seem for the moment to be identical or parallel. The Soviets are not visibly trying to take advantage of the situation to improve their influence in the Gulf at the expense of the US, although they obviously do always want to improve their influence with all the Arab countries.
It is a long time since anyone has thought of turning to the United Nations for help in trying to solve a problem. The last time an important UN peacemaking operation was visibly successful was in the 1956 Suez crisis, when the joint and cooperative efforts of the US and the USSR, working through the UN, caused British, French, and Israel armies to be withdrawn from the Suez Canal and from all Egyptian territory. The UN is helpless when the US and USSR are working against each other. It can be successful when the two superpowers are in agreement about what is wanted.
There is much reason to think that both would benefit from an end to the Iran-Iraq war. If, instead of moving more warships into the Gulf, they joined forces in the UN and pushed the UN to negotiations with the two belligerents, a safe end to the war might be achieved.
Often US and USSR have conflicting interests. Here their interests seem to be identical. When they consciously use their influence to the same end, they become virtually irresistible - as they were in the Suez crisis in 1956.