Last Friday, as the world speculated about whether the United States would retaliate against Iran in the wake of the Bridgeton mine incident, two Soviet freighters and a Soviet minesweeper were quietly steaming through the same dangerous area of the Gulf. The Soviet ships, headed south, passed close to the US-protected convoy roughly three hours after the Bridgeton struck the mine. A US naval officer radioed a warning to the Soviets of possible mines ahead.
According to press reports, a Soviet captain radioed back: ``Thank you American warship.'' And the Soviets sailed on.
The episode points up the stark difference between the low-key operating style of continuing Soviet Navy escorts in the Gulf, and the high-profile, confrontational stance taken by the Reagan administration as the US reaffirms plans to continue protecting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers from Iranian attack. [US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said yesterday that the Navy's anti-mine capabilities will be improved in the Gulf.]
Gulf-based diplomats and other observers say the US increased the risks of confrontation in the Gulf by making threatening statements before beginning the escort operation. They note that the Soviets have for weeks escorted their ships through the Gulf without incident.
``This is the American way of doing things - by publicizing it and telling every detail on television,'' one diplomat says. ``That is not the Soviet way. Secrecy and confidentiality ... is their way....''
When one of three Soviet tankers chartered by Kuwait hit a mine in the northern Gulf on May 16, diplomats point out, there was no rhetoric from Soviet leaders or citizens warning of the risks of protecting Gulf shipping. But they note that after the Bridgeton incident, members of Congress immediately renewed calls to discontinue the US escort operation. Diplomats say such calls raise questions about US reliability in the minds of Gulf leaders.
In addition to a low-key approach, diplomats say the Soviets have benefited from a flexible policy in the region that allows them to turn sudden events to their own advantage. Moscow maintains diplomatic relations with both Iraq and Iran, despite its current commitment to help protect Kuwaiti oil shipments in the Gulf. And the Soviets have avoided making policy statements that might back them into a corner and force a military or other response, observers say.
``You have to be extremely flexible and not stand up and erect an enormous amount of principles that you would never move away from,'' says a diplomat. ``The Soviets have a better grasp of this than the Americans,'' he adds.
Last winter, after being rebuffed by the US, Kuwait turned to the Soviets for help in protecting Kuwaiti oil shipments from increasing Iranian attacks in the Gulf. The Soviets quickly and quietly leased three of their own tankers to the Kuwaitis and began escorting them through the Gulf.
The Reagan administration responded with its current plan to reregister under the American flag up to half of Kuwait's 22-ship fleet of oil tankers. The administration pledged to protect the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers with US warship escorts.
The US said its actions were intended to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation in the Gulf's international waters. But officials spoke more passionately of preventing the Soviets from gaining key footholds in the oil-rich Gulf.
Last week, Mikail Gorbachev suggested in a letter to President Reagan that the two superpowers might work together in the Gulf to help defuse tension and end the nearly seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war. The White House replied that the UN was the appropriate forum for such efforts. Analysts say the US wanted to avoid lending any additional credibility to the Soviet's position in the Gulf.
Earlier the Soviets capitilized on public sentiment in Tehran by publicly denouncing the US military buildup in the Gulf.
Soviet officials echoed earlier statements by Iranian officials and called for a withdrawal of foreign warships from the Gulf by saying that the Soviets would remove all their ships from the region if the US would do likewise. (The Soviets then had five ships in the area, compared to roughly three times as many US ships.)
The US rejected the call, but the effort helped strengthen Soviet-Iranian ties at the expense of the US.
Though the Soviet Union and the US now share a common goal in protecting neutral shipping in the Gulf, the broader competition for influence in the region appears to have precluded the Soviets and the Americans working together.
But analysts in the Gulf stress that despite Moscow's efforts, the region is overwhelmingly pro-Western. Military equipment and weapons are still being purchased from the West, the vast majority of students abroad are studying in US or European universities, and most commerce and trade is Western oriented.