NOTHING more endangers long-range United States goals in the Gulf region than its present ``do nothing'' policy. The naval escorting of a few Kuwaiti tankers and the shooting up of Iranian speedboats are symbolic gestures that do nothing to address the serious political and military problems in the area. Needed is a new, realistic policy that guarantees military protection to the moderate Gulf Arab allies of the US while opening the door to quiet negotiations with the Iranians. The current US tilt toward Iraq is accomplishing neither.
The US is consciously alienating Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf Arab states by refusing to sell them the aircraft, missiles, and other military equipment they desperately need to defend themselves from Iranian attack. No number of US warships steaming about the Gulf alters the fact that these nations want to be able to defend themselves. They worry that American public opinion in an election year will force the Pentagon to move the US Navy out of the Gulf and back to normal duties.
The Arabs realize that President Reagan is operating from a position of weakness. He is forced to resort to a show of naval strength because he is unable to provide military arms to the Arabs in the face of unrelenting congressional truculence.
The Iranians, of course, are even less happy with Washington. They watch Iraq regularly attack neutral tankers plying to and from their ports, while tankers that sail to and from Kuwait, a key ally of Baghdad, are guarded by United States warships. Tehran cannot fathom Washington's continued backing of Iraq, knowing that Iraq began the land conflict, began the tanker war, and killed 37 Americans aboard the USS Stark. Not to mention Baghdad's killing of thousands of civilians by chemical warfare, in direct violation of an international convention.
It seems to the Iranian leaders that the US wants to continue punishing Iran for the Iran-contra affair long after the Tower Commission made clear the Reagan administration's blame for that fiasco.
The Iran-Iraq war will not fade away, regardless of Washington's fervent hopes. It must be made to go away, through quiet and persistent negotiations with both parties. Applying pressure on Iran alone has failed and will continue to fail.
The Soviet Union understands this and talks to both sides. Moscow may yet pull the fat out of the fire for Washington by negotiating a cease-fire. Any immediate relief in Washington, however, will quickly be dissipated as the realization dawns that the USSR has replaced the US as the dominant power in the Gulf region.
It is not in the best interests of the US to let the Iran-Iraq war bubble until a new president is elected. Such a period of drifting will give more time to the USSR to cement its relations with the Arabs and Iranians.
Washington does not seem to realize how much ground has been lost and is still being lost. The knee-jerk US reactions to the Saudi purchase of Chinese missiles, followed by stern congressional pronouncements trumpeting a hardened stance on any sales of arms to Saudi Arabia, have served only to push the Saudis into the arms of Moscow. Saudi Arabia has held off establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow, but is likely to take such a step in the next few months. China most likely will be accorded diplomatic recognition at the same time. When that happens, the rest of the Gulf Arab states will follow suit. More intimate military and economic relations can be expected to follow close on.
Moscow's departure from Afghanistan is removing the major obstacle to closer Soviet-Arab friendship; it also enhances the USSR's influence in Iran, which, like the Arab nations, has long voiced loud protests at Soviet intervention in a fellow Muslim country.
Given continued US belligerence toward Iran, the USSR is the only superpower with credibility in Tehran as well as the Arab capitals. Moscow is in the unique position of being able to negotiate with both combatants in the search for a mutually ``face saving'' resolution of the war. American inactivity strengthens Moscow's position.
The Reagan administration needs to immediately undertake a new initiative to end the Iran-Iraq war. Pressure must be applied to Iraq to immediately cease attacks on neutral shipping, as well as its missile attacks on civilian targets in Iran.
Washington has always had the power to demand this, but has lacked the will. One way would be to advise Kuwait that the US Navy will terminate its escort service unless Baghdad agrees to a cease-fire. A worried Kuwait would surely pass a strong message to the top Iraqi leadership. Even though most of Kuwait's oil flows from the Gulf in chartered, non-US-flagged vessels, the psychological impact of the imminent removal of US protection would make both Kuwait and Iraq aware of the seriousness of US intentions to end the war.
Washington should then advise Iran that any attack on neutral shipping after an Iraqi cease-fire would be dealt with more harshly than in the past. There is little doubt that Tehran would comply; Iran has always been more eager to see an end to the tanker war than has Iraq.
The US aim should be to reduce tension in the Gulf and assure Iran and Iraq that Washington wants to see a quick end to the war without discrimination against either side.
At that point, the Reagan administration should undertake diplomatic efforts to develop a stable, long-term relationship with Iran, looking forward to dealing with what well may be a more moderate regime after the reign of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Such a ``good faith'' US policy would include the development of packages of political and economic incentives designed to encourage d'etente with Iran and a continued close relationship with Iraq.
Both countries face serious economic problems as a result of sagging oil prices and the draining costs of a nearly eight-year war. Just as important, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the other Gulf Arab states are eager for an end to the conflict. Not only the removal of an Iranian military threat but the opportunity to return to their old profitable financial and trade activities in the Gulf would be warmly received.
Now is the time for the US to show superpower leadership. And the place is the Gulf.
John T. Haldane, a specialist in Middle East affairs, has served as a Foreign Service officer in Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo and as an international economist for the Departments of Commerce and the Treasury.