United States officials hope that UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar's visit to the Gulf region will temporarily ease Iranian attacks on tankers. The Secretary-General arrives in Tehran today. But a basic skepticism persists over whether Iran is serious about agreeing to a cease-fire. The officials also share the following perceptions of the Gulf situation and US policy toward the region:
The realization that the return of fighting in the Gulf heightens the risk of a clash involving US forces and that US actions and policy are now entangled in the moves of others in the Gulf (over which the US has little control).
A determination, despite the risks, to maintain the long-term commitment to defend the Gulf Arabs and rein in Iranian behavior, but a willingness to talk seriously to Iran whenever it is ready to begin a constructive dialogue.
A serious commitment to pursue nonmilitary means to reduce tensions in the Gulf region and end the Iran-Iraq war, particularly through the UN.
A firm intention to pursue UN sanctions against Iran if Iran further delays accepting July's UN Resolution 598 calling on Iran and Iraq to accept a cease-fire.
Growing recognition that the Soviet Union will have to play a key role if the UN process is to work. Opinion is divided, however, over whether Moscow is willing to be tough with Iran and the degree to which the US should seek to engage Moscow in broader efforts to end the war.
Officials and private specialists acknowledge that the renewed tanker war has increased the nervousness among politicians and others in Washington. However, they do not see this anxiety developing into a serious congressional challenge to US policy. Rather, they see broad agreement that this policy is based on important strategic considerations.
Some officials express anger that Iraq did not wait longer before attacking Iran and felt that the US should have been more critical of the Iraqi attacks, since they took the focus off of Tehran as the one resisting a cease-fire. Paul Jabber of the Council on Foreign Relations explains, and officials agree, that hitting Iran's oil exports is the only ``offensive weapon'' Iraq has to affect ``Iran's calculus on the war.'' Otherwise, it just has to absorb Iran's ground attacks, Mr. Jabber says.
On the positive side, one State Department official noted, Iran is being careful to stay away from US-protected shipping. He and others add that Tehran's invitation to the UN Secretary-General and its reported aid in the release of a West German hostage in Lebanon signal that Iran is feeling the pressure of US Gulf policy and international criticism. These sources underline that the renewed tension in the Gulf also points up the need to move quickly to a cease-fire or to sanctions of the belligerent that opposes one - in this case, Iran.
Jabber says the Iranians have in effect painted themselves into a corner by regularly repeating extreme conditions for ending the war. He argues that a ``constellation of pressures'' will have to be brought to bear on Iran to raise the costs of pursuing the war and to heighten the country's diplomatic isolation. Jabber suggests that the most effective means of pressure would be an international arms and oil embargo of Iran. Even if not perfect, such a step could tip the balance toward those in Iran who want to end the war, he says. Tehran does not have the economic margin to pursue the war much longer without real hardship if its trade income were cut and arms costs were raised significantly, Jabber explains.
Other US observers are pessimistic about Iran's sincerity in the UN cease-fire process.
On Sunday, Vernon Walters, America's ambassador to the UN, repeated Washington's intention to pursue an arms embargo in the UN Security Council, if there is no progress as a result of the Secretary-General's visit. US officials have discounted an economic embargo as too hard to monitor and as lacking support from other countries.
But Security Council agreement on an arms embargo will not be easy. US officials say a number of Security Council members are hesitant to impose any sanctions and some will probably try to delay action on any agreement. The Soviet Union and China are the two large question marks among the permanent members of the Security Council.