THE United States must find a more international way to protect neutral shipping in the Persian Gulf. The Reagan administration's action in support of freedom of navigation there has been far too unilateral. There was little consulting of allies before the US accepted Kuwait's bid for help, balancing Soviet acceptance of the same offer.
This week's decision by Britain and France to send minesweepers, while limited to protection of their own national convoys, is welcome. Beyond the immediate issue of equipment, however, the US should consult with its Gulf and European allies as to how to establish some kind of international regime to protect freedom of navigation. The result could be a naval peacekeeping force, perhaps under United Nations auspices, or greater use of a group such as the London-based International Maritime Organization, which exists to promote the safety of international merchant shipping.
The US should also continue to press for an end to the lengthy Iran-Iraq war. Both parties need to be able to count themselves winners. Iran continues to resist but does not formally reject last month's UN bid for a full cease-fire; Tehran wants Iraq clearly declared the ``aggressor.''
As the US military presence in the Gulf and the number of incidents of friction between Iran and Washington have grown recently, so has the pitch of voices within the US pressing for some action to show Iran that Washington will not be bullied. Suggestions include the laying of mines close to Iranian shores. It is almost as if the pressure points are in place to provoke Iran into attacking first so that the US can justify ``retaliation.''
The world seems to be looking for trouble in the Gulf daily. The danger in such an atmosphere is that it could prod Washington into losing sight of the reason it went to the Gulf in the first place. Whatever its embarrassment over the arms-for-hostages deal and the need to restore credibility with moderate Arab nations, the US did not travel thousands of miles to pick a fight with Iran and teach Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a lesson.
With the Libya experience in mind, some in the US might argue that the administration should settle for less talk and take tougher action against Iran, hoping for a more chastened government in Tehran.
Not a good idea. Iran is much larger than Libya. Its role in recent political demonstrations in Saudi Arabia and its persistence in the war against Iran reflect the depth of its Islamic revolutionary fervor. Though moderate Arab goverments verbally supported the Saudis after the Mecca incident, the Ayatollah's following among Muslims in many of those same nations must not be underestimated.
The new Soviet rapprochement with Iran is another reason the US should move cautiously. The new Iran-Soviet economic plan, including an oil pipeline, could encourage Iran's political dependence on Moscow despite Tehran's anticommunist rhetoric. Increased US hostility toward Iran would leave the Ayatollah with less choice on that score.
As a key arms supplier to Iraq, Moscow could one day be in a position to broker an agreement between Iran and Iraq. Rather than let itself become preoccupied with Moscow's shipping maneuvers in the Gulf, the US should keep a watchful eye on the Soviet diplomatic offensive.
This is no time for gunboat diplomacy in the Gulf.