U.S. Navy warships soon will begin escorting Kuwaiti merchant vessels through the Persian Gulf to protect them from Iranian missiles and artillery, Pentagon and State Department officials said Tuesday.
"It is not a matter of if, it is a question of when we start" escorting Kuwaiti ships in the gulf, a senior Defense Department official said.
He said the United States and Kuwait will sign an agreement "within days" outlining the conditions for the U.S. naval action. The negotiations, he said, are down to such relatively minor points as whether Kuwait will supply fuel for the U.S. warships.
'Waiting for Answers'
A State Department official added: "We are waiting for some final answers from the Kuwaitis. It is just a matter of working out the modalities."
The Pentagon official, who asked not to be identified by name, said he believes that it will be the first time since just before World War II that U.S. Navy ships have protected civilian vessels of another country from attack by combatants in a war in which the United States is officially neutral. U.S. warships watched over convoys of British merchant vessels in the western Atlantic in 1941 to guard against German submarines.
Meanwhile, Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, threatened retaliation against Americans throughout the world if the United States attacks Iranian targets.
"If, God forbid, such a thing takes place, Americans will be unsafe throughout the world," Rafsanjani said in an interview with Tehran radio. "Of course, we don't want this to happen. We're not making threats, but we are warning the American people to tie the hands of their leaders."
Kuwait, a major oil exporter which has substantial shipping in the gulf, sought protection for its merchant fleet from both the United States and the Soviet Union. Washington, which discourages any Soviet role in the Middle East, balked at a joint operation, the State Department official said. Kuwait apparently decided that if it had to choose, it would prefer American naval escorts.
However, the official said, Kuwait has indicated that it will try to involve Moscow by chartering Soviet merchant vessels to carry Kuwaiti cargo. The Soviet navy routinely escorts Soviet-flag ships in the gulf area.
Iran recently deployed Chinese-made HY-2 Silkworm anti-ship missiles along the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow choke point at the mouth of the gulf. U.S. officials believe that Iran could effectively stop all shipping in the gulf if it uses the missiles against merchant ships.
U.S. policy, dating back to President Jimmy Carter, calls for U.S. military action to protect the right of civilian passage through the gulf.
Shipping Vital to Iran
The State Department official said it would be "illogical" for Tehran to close the gulf because gulf shipping is vital to Iran. But, he said, "logic does not always control actions in that part of the world."
Although other neutral countries also have shipping in the gulf, Kuwait is the only nation to ask for protection.
The Pentagon official said the Navy is assessing the number of ships it will need for escort duty. There are about half a dozen destroyers and frigates currently deployed in the gulf, but that task force could be increased.
It is not clear just how a destroyer or a frigate could protect itself or the rest of the convoy from a missile like the Silkworm. Presumably, the U.S. warship could return fire with its own guns, but that might not be enough to prevent an Iranian attack.
Carriers Ruled Out
The Pentagon official ruled out sending a U.S. aircraft carrier into the gulf. However, an Iranian attack on a convoy including U.S. warships could be answered by a bombing strike by carrier-based aircraft in the Arabian Sea.
In his radio interview, Rafsanjani denied that Iran has changed the military balance in the gulf by deploying the Silkworms.
"What is the purpose of the American noises now?" he said. "We've had coast-to-sea missiles for a while. If the Strait of Hormuz is going to be closed, then there's no need for missiles. We can close it with artillery."
Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency said that the Iranian navy intercepted three foreign vessels in the strait Monday and Tuesday, apparently to check for possible military cargo bound for Iraq. It gave no details. As a general rule, the United States does not object to Iranian "stop and search," orders provided that the ships are not harmed.