U.S. Reaffirms Vow to Protect Gulf Ships

Times Staff Writer

The Reagan Administration, keenly embarrassed by Kuwait's seeming preference for Soviet help, still remains ready to protect merchant shipping in the Persian Gulf from Iranian missiles and artillery, State Department and Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

"We are holding discussions with the nations bordering on the gulf about the nature of the Iranian threat and how U.S. policy can best be applied to the situation," a State Department official said.

But he conceded that the prospect of using U.S. warships to escort oil tankers--once considered a near-certainty--has now "sort of gone by the boards." A Pentagon official said the U.S. escort plan remains under active consideration, although "nothing ever seems to be that simple."

The officials said they have no ready explanation for why the traditional U.S. objective of minimizing Soviet influence in the Middle East went so sour. The Soviet Foreign Ministry announced Tuesday that Moscow will lease three Soviet tankers to Kuwait to carry oil through the war-torn gulf, probably accompanied by a Soviet naval escort.

State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley said the United States and Kuwait are talking about the possibility of reregistering Kuwaiti-owned ships to fly the U.S. flag, making them eligible for American naval protection. But she said the Kuwaiti ships may find it difficult to meet U.S. maritime safety and labor regulations.

Another State Department official said later that the American flag "is not intended to be" a flag of convenience.

Moscow's maritime laws are more permissive, apparently making it more attractive to charter Soviet ships.

In early March, Iran deployed Chinese-made HY-2 Silkworm anti-ship missiles along the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow choke point at the mouth of the gulf. The missiles, with a 30-mile range, are capable of striking ships anywhere in the strait.

Neutral Ships Attacked

Although none of the Silkworms has been fired, Kuwait is concerned that its ships could become a prime target. Using less potent weapons, Iran has regularly attacked neutral ships in the gulf, apparently hoping to intimidate the Arab gulf states that, though technically neutral, provide economic support for Arab Iraq against non-Arab Iran in the long-running gulf war.

Kuwait ships most of its production of about 1.3 million barrels of oil a day through the gulf. The small but rich country has little military power of its own to protect its shipping. Neighboring Saudi Arabia, the gulf's largest producer, has its own navy and air force.

According to U.S. officials, Kuwait approached both the United States and the Soviet Union, urging them to form a joint patrol to keep the gulf open to the commercial ships of noncombatants. The United States, which has long tried to keep the Soviets out of Middle East politics, refused to consider a joint effort but offered to provide American escorts.

"They approached us, and we responded positively with the hope the Russians would not be brought into it," a Pentagon official said. "We responded quickly, but they insisted on bringing the Russians in."

Kuwait is a conservative monarchy that maintains diplomatic relations with both Washington and Moscow and traditionally tries to avoid taking sides between the superpowers. When its original idea of a joint superpower escort fell through, Kuwait decided to transport its oil in U.S. and Soviet tankers, assuming that Washington and Moscow would protect their own merchant ships. But that plan has been blocked so far by Kuwait's unwillingness or inability to comply with U.S. maritime law.

It all seemed much easier three weeks ago when a Pentagon official said, "It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when we start" escorting Kuwaiti ships. At that time, a State Department official said the negotiations had reached the stage of "working out the modalities."

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