IF you piece together the early information about the tragedy in the Gulf on Sunday, it looks suspiciously like a trap set and baited by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Of course we are a long way from being sure about all the relevant facts. And it is difficult to believe that the Ayatollah is both clever enough and diabolical enough to have deliberately and consciously set such a trap. Yet the effect is as if that were the case.
Here in relevant sequence is what, so far, we know or think we know about this matter.
The Ayatollah's policies and programs have been in decline for nearly a year. During each winter of the Gulf war until this last one he has been able to mount a damaging offensive against Iraq. Two winters ago his ground armies came close to capturing Iraq's second largest city and main oil exporting center, Basra. His artillery battered the city almost into lifelessness.
His troops also hammered at upper sections of the Iran-Iraq military frontier and dented it at various points both near Baghdad and in the north. Iraq's ultimate military survival was seriously in question two winters ago.
But last winter the Iranians were pushed back on every front. This spring the Iraqis cleared the Faw Peninsula and, in effect, lifted the siege of Basra. They took back all of Iraq's territory on the other fronts which had been lost in various earlier Iranian offensives. By this time there is no longer any Iraqi land in Iranian hands.
In the meantime the Iranian attempt to prevent Arab oil from going to the outside world through the Gulf failed, due in part to the cooperative international efforts to keep the sea lanes open. Alongside this development was a decline in Iran's oil exports due to Iraqi air strikes. Loss of oil revenue was damaging the economy and crippling the war effort.
In other words by spring of this year Iran was losing the war and getting into deep economic trouble. The Ayatollah's prestige and authority were slipping.
US Navy sources tell us that for some time Iranian F-14 planes have been flying toward the USS Vincennes in an attack pattern, provoking a radio warning, and then flying off. It is said that on Sunday the Iranian passenger plane flew toward the Vincennes along precisely the same path and at the same speed as the F-14s. But this time the plane did not fly off.
Iranian pilots we are told have made a practice of not listening to or paying any heed to US Navy warnings. They simply ignore such communications and go ahead with their flights as though there were no US warships or aircraft in the area.
This was a situation built for trouble.
Every US naval officer in the Gulf knows full well what happened to the USS Stark on May 17 of last year when its skipper waited too long to shoot. He lost 37 members of his crew from overcaution.
The fate of the Stark and the recent behavior of F-14s combined to cause acute sensitivity aboard the Vincennes about any aircraft approaching on a descending pattern at the speed of an F-14.
The result is a tragedy which serves the Ayatollah's needs. It revives anger against the US among Iranians. It revives war fever among his people. It slows down or heads off whatever inclination there was among his potential successors to find an end to the war and to the state of hostility with the US. And in the meantime it fuels anti-American sentiment around the world.
None of this proves that the Ayatollah consciously and deliberately baited the trap into which, in all innocence, the US Navy walked. But it is the kind of thing which, whether planned or accidental, can all too easily happen when a great power plays a military role in a place as complex and explosive as the Gulf.