The United States has been drawn closer to a new threshold in its growing involvement in the Gulf conflict. Analysts widely see the Iranian missile strike Thursday on Kuwait's main oil terminal as Iranian retaliation for the US destruction of two Iranian oil platforms Oct. 19. (Iran may be using upgraded Silkworm missiles. Story, Page 6.)
If the US retaliates for the attack on the purely Kuwaiti target, it will have dropped any pretense of not being caught up in Gulf hostilities. But if it fails to react, it could risk being accused of getting its Gulf Arab allies into even deeper trouble with Iran.
At issue is why US forces are really in the Gulf. Are they there simply to ensure freedom of navigation for US-flagged ships, as administration officials often declare? Or is their real mission to shore up the conservative Arab oil states against Iranian encroachment and harassment, as the Gulf Arab states themselves clearly hope?
The strike on the Sea Island terminal could have serious consequences for Kuwait's oil operations. Kuwaiti oil officials said the missile, reportedly a Chinese-supplied Silkworm, fired from the Iranian-occupied part of Iraq's Faw peninsula, damaged the platform extensively. The Sea Island is Kuwait's only facility with waters deep enough for supertankers over 250,000 tons.
It was the third Silkworm strike on the same area in a week. On Oct. 15, the US-owned tanker Sungari was hit in nearby waters. The following day, the US-flagged tanker Sea Isle City was struck while heading for the Kuwaiti terminal.
It was in response to the latter attack that US naval forces destroyed the two Iranian platforms. Iranian leaders vowed that they would retaliate. But after Thursday's attack, Iran did not claim responsibility, seeming to take pains not to provoke US counterretaliation.
Tehran Radio also reported Thursday that an Iranian tanker, the Kharg 4, had been hit and damaged in an Iraqi air attack the night before. It is virtually unprecedented for the Iranians to report such Iraqi strikes on their shipping. The implication seemed to be that Iran was portraying the attack on Kuwait as a retaliation for Iraqi actions, not for those of the Americans.
Even laying aside the general belief that the Iranian attack was indeed a response to the American move, it was seen as posing a challenge to the Americans in any case. It was persistent Iranian attacks on Kuwaiti shipping - and a swift Soviet reponse, chartering three vessels to the Kuwaitis - that prompted Washington in the summer to agree to re-register 11 Kuwaiti tankers, qualifying them for US naval protection.
While US officials justified the move by citing the need to defend free navigation, both Iran and the Arab Gulf states saw the move as an intended deterrent to Iranian threats against the Gulf states.
Such broad commitments have rarely been publicly voiced by US officials. But on Sept. 29, Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Armitage said at a press conference in Kuwait: ``I don't think anyone in the West would allow any of the Gulf [Arab] states to come under Iranian domination. That's one of the reasons why we and others are here: to stop Iranian hegemony.''
The Silkworm strike on the US-flagged Sea Isle City tanker provided clear grounds for US retaliation, although it was legally a borderline case, as the vessel was in Kuwaiti waters at the time and not under US naval protection.
The Kuwaiti press openly urged the US to hit back for the attack on the Sea Isle City, as it did. But for the US to retaliate directly for an Iranian attack on Kuwait would clearly be breaking altogether new ground.
If the US fails to respond, Iran could be encouraged to carry out further strikes, in the hope of crippling Kuwait's exports and undermining the US role. For the moment, however, the emphasis could be on helping Kuwait counter the Silkworm threat. Western intelligence sources believe Iran has about 100 of the missiles as well as 10 transporters that make them less vulnerable to attack.
But the Silkworm is a slow-moving missile. It took five minutes to reach the Kuwaiti terminal area from Faw. Informed sources say the missile that hit the Sea Isle City on Oct. 16 was tracked by Kuwaiti air defenses, which fired Soviet-supplied SAM-7 missiles at it and missed.
Now, the sources say, a team from the US company Raytheon is in Kuwait helping move US-made Hawk missiles up to the Al Ahmadi terminal. Equipped with the latest electronic systems, the air defense missiles are thought capable of intercepting the sluggish Silkworms.