Gunfire in the Persian Gulf has sparked new debate in Washington about the future of United States policy for the region. Key members of Congress are again saying they want more influence over the US escort of Kuwaiti tankers. In response, the White House claims that any congressional limits on the escort operation would be a large mistake.
The US attack on an Iranian ship, the Iran Ajr, caught laying mines will have a twofold effect on this debate, members of Congress and other analysts say:
As a demonstrable military success, the attack will balance out the earlier embarrassing incident of a mine striking the escorted tanker Bridgeton. It makes the escort operation appear well run.
At the same time, the incident emphasizes the dangers being encountered by US service personnel. Critical legislators yesterday questioned whether this danger was worth the political gain involved.
(Gulf hostilities spur British action against Iran, P. 4.)
One point that almost everyone in official Washington was agreeing on was the performance of the military units involved in the interdiction of an Iranian vessel caught laying mines.
Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, for example, head of a House subcommittee on the Middle East, said the US use of force in this case was ``skillful'' and ``appropriate.''
Representative Hamilton said in a television interview that he believed support in Congress for reflagging has grown in recent weeks as operations in the Gulf have improved and administration officials have done a better job of explaining the policy.
But others in Congress, such as House majority leader Thomas Foley (D) of Washington, differ with Hamilton on the question of legislative support. They say the use of force demonstrates how serious the situation is - serious enough that lawmakers should have more say in controlling it.
In particular, congressional critics want to invoke the War Powers Resolution, legislation passed during the Vietnam war era that is designed to let Congress vote thumbs up or thumbs down when a president sends troops into the face of imminent hostilities.
The Reagan administration has said the War Powers Resolution does not apply to the current Gulf operation, as the ships there do not face imminent fighting.
``How can they say that?'' a congressional military affairs aide says, criticizing the administration position. ``They've got helicopters out there looking for things to shoot at.''
Just last week the Senate voted 50 to 41 not to invoke the War Powers Resolution. Sen. Lowell Weicker (R) of Connecticut says he will force another vote on the issue this week. Congressional staff members, however, say a likely alternative is a compromise bill being drafted by Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia which would automatically cut off funds for the escort operation in six months unless the Senate votes otherwise.
President Reagan reacted stronglyyesterday to the prospect of such limits, saying they would be a ``great mistake'' and ``an encouragement to others to wait.''
Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said yesterday that there were indications that the old-fashioned contact mines found aboard the Iran Ajr were made recently in Iran.
Mr. Weinberger leaves today on a five-day trip to the Gulf region. Officially the main purpose of the journey is to boost morale of US troops there with a visit, but Weinberger will also be meeting with government representatives in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt.
Weinberger and other US officials say they hope that clear evidence of Iranian mining activity will encourage moderate Arab nations to support US policy more vocally. Prospects of UN Security Council approval of a US-sponsored arms embargo against Iran have now improved, he said yesterday.