President Reagan is expected to decide soon whether to widen the U.S. role of protecting ships in the Persian Gulf, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said today.
He told a Senate subcommittee the decision was awaiting the return of Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci, who is due back in Washington tonight from a NATO meeting in Brussels.
"I think probably the President will come to a decision about it fairly soon," he said.
Shultz gave no hint what the decision might be or what his personal position is but he said: "The issue is if a U.S. naval ship is in the presence of a neutral ship that's being attacked and the captain of that ship asks for assistance, should we provide it? That's the basic question."
"The question is being examined in the Administration. No decision has been made about it," he added.
Shultz made his comments in response to a question.
U.S. officials began considering expanding the security umbrella after unprecedented clashes last week in which U.S. forces destroyed two Iranian oil platforms and attacked six Iranian ships after an American warship hit a mine in the gulf that Washington said was laid by Tehran.
Opposition on Coast Guard
On Capitol Hill, new opposition developed today to sending Coast Guard vessels to the Persian Gulf, while the Coast Guard commandant defended the proposal by saying it wouldn't hurt anti-drug efforts at home.
Rep. Mike Lowry (D-Wash.) introduced a measure in the House that would ban use of the Coast Guard in the gulf.
"The Reagan Administration should use the Coast Guard's scarce resources to fight the war on drugs, not the Iran-Iraq war," Lowry said.
Sen. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) told his colleagues it would be a mistake to send lightly armed Coast Guard vessels into the war-torn gulf.
Lowry's proposal will be considered next week as an amendment to a bill authorizing the Pentagon budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.
The Pentagon is considering sending six Coast Guard ships to help Navy warships patrol the gulf. The Coast Guard vessels are designed for shallow waters, and Navy officials say they could be effective in the shallows of the gulf.
The Navy is escorting 11 reflagged Kuwaiti tankers, raising fears in Congress that the United States might be drawn into the Iran-Iraq conflict inasmuch as Kuwait is an Iraq ally.