President Reagan, raising the specter of long lines at gasoline stations and a crippled economy, vowed Friday that neither Iran nor the Soviet Union would be allowed to control the shipping lanes of the embattled Persian Gulf.
"Our economies and our people were viewed as the captives of oil-producing regimes in the Middle East," Reagan said, recalling the crisis that began in 1973 with the Arab-Israeli War. "This could happen again if Iran and the Soviet Union were able to impose their will upon the friendly Arab states of the Persian Gulf."
But the President, appealing to the American people for support while seeking to calm fears about increased military involvement in the region, stressed that "our goal is to seek peace rather than provocation."
His comments were intended to respond to congressional criticism, which one Administration official fears "eventually will spill over to the public," particularly in light of the May 17 attack, apparently accidental, by an Iraqi jet on the U.S. Navy frigate Stark in the gulf.
Reagan, speaking after a meeting with his senior national security aides on the issue, made his remarks as Administration officials shed new light on the sensitive operation under which the Navy will escort Kuwaiti oil tankers traveling through the Strait of Hormuz and in the gulf under the threat of attack by Iraq's war foe, Iran.
The Administration, which had indicated that the tanker protection could start as early as next week, said the mission will not begin until the end of June.
This change raised questions about whether the delay was caused as much by political concerns over congressional criticism as by the time-consuming, re-registration of the Kuwaiti ships under U.S. flag and work on the military escort plan. The Administration denied that political considerations caused the delay.
The plan for a greater Navy role in the war-torn region stems from Kuwait's request that it be allowed to transfer 11 oil tankers to U.S. registration, a step that would give them U.S. protection. Kuwait has supported Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, and Iran has attacked Kuwaiti tankers repeatedly in the course of the 6 1/2-year-old conflict.
A senior Pentagon official, outlining details of the military plan, said the Navy would increase by 50% the size of its operation in the Persian Gulf, deploying three more vessels to augment the Middle East Task Force of seven warships and to serve as escorts for the tankers.
Aircraft Carrier Planned
In addition, an aircraft carrier would be stationed just south of the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf of Oman, and Orion P-3 and AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft, based in Oman and Saudi Arabia, would be used for reconnaissance.
Under the plan approved by the President, the Navy would assemble enough firepower to respond to an attack by Iran on Persian Gulf traffic if the show of U.S. force is not enough to deter such action, the official said.
Assistant Defense Secretary Richard L. Armitage said that about 300 ships make round trips to gulf ports each month and are the victims of 40 to 50 attacks by Iran and Iraq.
Iraq's attacks have generally been limited to vessels carrying Iranian oil or cargo; Baghdad said the attack on the Stark was accidental. Iran has struck the ships of neutral nations or those, such as Kuwait, that have supported Iraq, the Pentagon official said.
In defending the gulf policy in a short appearance for reporters at the White House, Reagan recalled "the woeful impact of the Middle East oil crisis . . . the endless, demoralizing gas lines, the shortages, the rationing, the escalating energy prices and double-digit inflation and the enormous dislocation that shook our economy to its foundations."
"Mark this point: The use of the vital sea lanes of the Persian Gulf will not be dictated by the Iranians. These lanes will not be allowed to come under the control of the Soviet Union," the President said.
However, Reagan's remarks drew less than overwhelming support on Capitol Hill.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said he does not quarrel with the need for a Western presence in the gulf but is withholding judgment of the Administration's plan until he sees more details.
Rep. William S. Broomfield of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he is "willing to give the Administration the benefit of the doubt," but only upon assurances that it will keep Congress fully informed of the situation.
Armitage and Richard W. Murphy, the assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, sought to reassure an apprehensive Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Administration will take no steps to implement its plan to provide defensive convoy escorts for the tankers until the operating plan has been fully worked out and Congress has been consulted at length.
"There is a risk, a very real risk" in the Persian Gulf war zone, Armitage conceded. "But nothing is going to move until we are satisfied we have a regime that reduces the risk to the lowest possible."
A White House official, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said Reagan's vivid recollections of last decade's oil crisis were designed to "bring this home and make sure people know it's in the interest of the United States" to keep the gulf shipping lanes open--though no more than about 7% of U.S. oil comes from that region.
The official said the delay in beginning the escort operation affords the Administration several weeks to line up "political support, domestically and internationally."
Confrontation a Concern
In addition, he said, "you don't want a chance of confrontation while the President is overseas" at the Venice economic summit conference. Reagan will be in Europe from June 3 through June 12.
Efforts to win political and other forms of support from European allies, Japan and friendly Arab states in the gulf region were outlined by Armitage and Murphy. The two officials have frequently briefed committee members, staff and other panels in both houses of Congress in recent months as the plan for escorting Kuwaiti vessels gradually took shape.
Two key motives are behind the policy, they said: to ensure that Iran does not win its war with Iraq and to keep Soviet influence and presence in the region to a minimum.
Late last year, Kuwait, fearing an expanded Iranian ability to attack neutral shipping with missiles, aircraft and small naval craft, invited the Soviets to lease three tankers to carry Kuwaiti oil to Western Europe under the Soviet flag. In January, they balanced accounts with the request to the United States.
Armitage said the "protective regime" being considered would not, in any case, require a full-scale defensive alert for U.S. warships in the gulf 24 hours a day.
"It's 780 miles from Kuwait to the Strait of Hormuz, and it takes 40 to 48 hours," he said. Thus, Navy ships in the gulf would be on escort duty a maximum of "two out of every 10 days."
At the Pentagon, an official said one of the ships joining the Middle East task force is expected to be an Aegis-class cruiser with air defense systems considered the most capable in the world. The eight U.S. cruisers of this type are equipped with sophisticated radar that scans in all directions at once and with great range.
An Aegis cruiser would operate in the gulf "from time to time as needed but not on a permanent basis," this official said, indicating that it probably would enter the gulf only when Kuwaiti ships are being escorted.
Another ship likely to be added to the U.S. fleet in the gulf will be a nuclear-powered cruiser of the Virginia class, this official said. Armament on this type of cruiser includes Harpoon surface-to-surface missiles with a 56-mile range.
Staff writers David Lauter, Gaylord Shaw and Karen Tumulty contributed to this story.