The Iran-Iraq war is at the center of this week's United States-Soviet discussions of regional issues, US officials say. The Reagan administration believes Moscow is being shortsighted in its handling of the conflict, they add.
In the US view, the Iranians are playing with the Soviets and diverting Moscow from joining in the kind of international pressure needed to end the war, they say.
Simultaneously, the administration is trying to stop a Senate move banning the sale of Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Bahrain, the Gulf country most supportive of US presence in that region. Such a limit would threaten newly restored confidence in the US among Arab moderates, officials say, and lead Moscow and Tehran to question US resolve.
A Silkworm missile attack on Kuwait Monday is a clear signal of Iran's intention to continue the war, officials say. Muhammad Javad Larijani, Iran's deputy foreign minister, stonewalled on UN peace talks when visiting New York last week, they add, again demonstrating that Tehran is not serious about negotiations.
The US must hang tough while working with others to press Iran to the negotiating table, senior officials argue.
The US believes that the best way of getting talks under way is putting UN sanctions on Iran. US officials are clearly frustrated at Moscow's current approach and particularly its refusal to support a UN ban on arms sales to Iran. The Soviets, they admit, are tempted by the possibility of expanding their influence in Iran and the region.
Iran has refrained from attacking Soviet ships carrying arms to Iraq, restrained its support for the Afghan resistance, and offered economic cooperation with the Soviet Union, officials say. In return, the Soviets have become the de facto protecter of Iran in the UN Security Council, they say. Moscow has also allowed Soviet military equipment to flow to Iran from Eastern Europe, Libya, and North Korea, they say.
Moscow, however, would be wrong to think that Iran will change its basic mistrust of the Soviet Union or, under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, alter its commitment to radical Islam in exchange for Soviet beneficence, they say.
In private, the Soviets say the peace process in this eight-year war will take time and claim their active diplomacy got Iran's deputy foreign minister to New York last week, US officials say. The Soviets also continue to call for a multilateral naval peacekeeping force in the Gulf as a way of removing the US and West European ships there now.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Larijani offered nothing new to the UN, despite Soviet efforts, an informed official says. In a reported private speech to Iranian diplomats recently, Iran's parliamentary speaker mocked the whole UN effort, while stressing that Iran would continue the war, a US Gulf specialist adds.
Washington is open to the idea of multilateral peacekeeping forces, diplomats say, but the first step to lessen tensions has to be a cease-fire on the ground and at sea. Here, US-Soviet cooperation could make the difference, they say.
US officials are also concerned about maintaining US resolve on the Gulf. An amendment passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee would ban for a year the sale of sophisticated US Stinger antiaircraft missiles to any Gulf country. The legislation threatens US credibility, officials say.
The amendment is aimed at Bahrain, which has provided landing rights to US military ships for 40 years. It has been the most supportive Gulf state of the expanded US naval presence in the region. An island nation, it is very vulnerable to air attack from Iran and more of a potential target with heightened US presence, US officials say. The Stinger is the appropriate weapon in this situation, they say.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D) of Arizona, the author of the amendment, is a longtime critic of Stinger sales to all but the closest allies. The potential for the portable and effective missile to be used as a terrorist weapon makes it too dangerous to sell widely, he says.
The senator agrees Bahrain deserves US help, an aide adds, but questions whether the Stinger is appropriate, especially given the volatile Gulf situation and the fact that Iran has already acquired some US stingers illegally. Iran's news agency claims that Iran downed two Iraqi jets Monday, one with a Stinger. Iran reportedly purchased six to nine Stingers from a rogue Afghan guerrilla leader several months ago.
US officials respond that the 70 Stingers and 14 launchers would be under strict safeguards, minimizing any chance of misuse. That danger, they say, comes from the 25,000 Soviet surface-to-air missiles in the Middle East, which have few safeguards and are physically much more amenable to terrorist use.
The informal opposition to the sale by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee is important in congressional support for a ban, aides and officials say. But a number of key lawmakers, with strong records of support for Israel, favor the sale, including Senate Appropriations Committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii and Rep. Stephen Solarz (D) of New York.
The issue is seen by many Gulf Arabs as a ``litmus test'' of US support for friends, officials and congressional staff members say.