Swimming With Sharks : Soviets Hold Ultimate Edge if U.S. Blunders in the Gulf

Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies

For two centuries, the Russians have tried to extend their influence, if not their empire, to the shores of the Persian Gulf. In the last few weeks, they have come closer than ever before to realizing this dream. U.S. policy is creating the opportunity, and U.S. policy must prevent it.

Opportunity began knocking when Kuwait decided that it needed protection for its oil tankers against Iranian attacks. When the Soviet Union agreed to lend a few of its red-flagged tankers, alarm bells went off in Washington. The Reagan Administration rapidly drew up a plan whereby the United States would re-flag 11 Kuwaiti tankers, thus putting them under protection of the Stars and Stripes. But, as we learned with the Iraqi attack on the U.S. Navy's Stark, no one seems to have thought through the risks and possible consequences.

Most important is the risk that Iran will call our bluff. That is not in Iran's natural interest, which is to stay out of a fight with the United States and to keep the oil flowing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Yet it is foolish to assume that Iran will do nothing if it sees the United States defending everyone else's oil, while Iraq continues its attacks on Iranian tankers. Nor is it clear that the government in Tehran can control all military elements within the country. The Revolutionary Guards may have been behind the recent attack on a Soviet tanker in the gulf. No doubt, some Iranians would welcome a U.S. attack on their country to provide a shot in the arm for the revolution and to ensure U.S.-Iranian hostility for years to come.

American anger and frustration with Iran have blurred understanding of its strategic significance and led sensible people to ignore a key strategic tenet: If the United States strikes Iran, the Soviet Union is the winner. Indeed, this tenet was most important in limiting the Carter Administration's actions to the aborted rescue mission in 1980, and it kept the Reagan Administration in check despite Iran's role in terrorism. Unfortunately, U.S. interests in the gulf are on the verge of again becoming hostage to Iranian behavior.

It would take a major U.S.-Iranian military conflict to tempt the Soviets to invade; they have learned that much from Afghanistan. But Tehran's first step after the first bomb fell would surely be to cement its ties to Moscow--for a long time to come. It is no coincidence that the Soviet Union did not retaliate when its tanker was struck. In the Soviet scenario, that part is to be played by the United States.

In the era of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviets do not rest on self-congratulation over the windfall provided by America's lack of prudence. Moscow has dusted off a proposal made by Leonid I. Brezhnev in 1980, to create joint East-West responsibility for security in the gulf. Wisely, the United States said "no, thanks," back then. This time, the White House chief of staff, Howard Baker, mused that "it would not be a bad thing." At Venice, however, Ronald Reagan squelched that.

It is well that he did, but he and his Administration must also understand the triple threat now posed by the Soviets' diplomacy. They will gain something--but not very much--with gulf Arab states if the United States reneges on its pledge to re-flag Kuwait's tankers and provide escorts. They will gain much more if the United States gives its imprimatur to their presence in the gulf or, worse, recognizes it as of equal weight in regional security. And they will sweep the board if the United States blunders into conflict with Iran.

As icing on the cake, the Soviet Union has announced that it will send no more ships to the gulf. Its limited role has been sufficiently exaggerated by the United States, and its does not want to risk the embarrassment of having another of its ships attacked. As in Central America, Moscow has established a position that is low-cost, low-risk and potentially high-payoff--waiting for a U.S. mistake.

Having dropped the gauntlet, the United States has no easy way out. It can begin by putting the problem in perspective. As the West Europeans and Japanese point out, the threat to tanker traffic is no greater now than it has been during the past three years. And Washington can reduce its rhetoric--the nonsense about the gulf becoming "a Soviet lake," and the threats to attack Iran's new Silkworm missiles at the strait the moment they become operational. Both play the Soviet game.

The United States should also take its stand on the principle of freedom for all shipping, not just non-Iranian. It should call for a halt to the tanker war by Iraq as well as Iran. It should focus its diplomacy within a Western institution, the International Energy Agency, and invite the gulf belligerents to take part.

Finally, the Reagan Administration must recognize that America's friends in the region want to succeed at peace-making and are most fearful of Soviet intervention.

Demonstrating clear awareness of U.S. interests and acting on them is the best recipe for countering Soviet influence. It worked for most of the postwar period. It can work again if we have the wit to pursue it.

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