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U.S. Invites Trouble on Already Troubled Waters

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<i> Richard B. Straus is the editor of the Middle East Policy Survey</i>

Just when many Americans thought it was finally safe to go back traveling abroad, events in the Middle East may make them think again. Reagan Administration experts believe that the assassination of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s No. 2 man, Kahlil Wazir, also known as Abu Jihad (“father of the holy war”), and the firefight between the U.S. and Iran in the Persian Gulf will provoke a new wave of international terrorism.

While Israelis, not Americans, are the prime targets for PLO revenge, one State Department analyst predicted, the PLO “will probably try something big and ugly. It will also no doubt be sloppy.” Moreover, PLO spokesmen, in the wake of Abu Jihad’s death, have publicly declared null and void their three-year-old pledge to restrict “military operations” to Israel and the occupied territories. Although some Arab diplomats argued that PLO chief Yasser Arafat will continue to restrain his organization, U.S. experts believe if not the PLO, another group will undertake a high-profile operation.

Of even greater concern to U.S. officials is the increased likelihood of Iranian-based terrorism. Here the concern derives not only from the knowledge that Americans could be in the direct line of fire, but also from the belief that the U.S. government may be provoking the Iranians.

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No one doubts that the Administration was justified in responding militarily to Iran’s recent minelaying in the Persian Gulf. But well-informed U.S. sources admit that the Administration has been less than fully candid in its explanation of the background, sequence of events and, most important, the rationale for now expanding the U.S. naval role in the gulf.

To begin with, the United States believes that the Iranian decision to seed the Persian Gulf waterway with lethal mines once again--after a nine-month lull--was the result of an intensifying internal power struggle. The theory among some U.S. officials is that Iranian radicals were reacting to recent overtures made by representatives of their republic to the Reagan Administration.

Although extremely wary of providing details about such sensitive diplomatic moves, one well-informed source described them as “the most significant Iranian overtures in years.” And another well-placed official acknowledged that they were being made by what he called “central people in the regime”.

Iranian radicals, in response, could have decided on armed confrontation as a foolproof method for disrupting any substantial Iranian-American dialogue. To the chagrin of these theorists, the Administration reaction has allowed the radicals to triumph beyond their wildest expectations.

That is not to say any U.S. official, down to the lowliest policy analyst, opposes holding Iran responsible for actions undertaken by its minions. But in employing overwhelming military force and then seeking to expand the scope of naval operations, the United States is, in the words of one State Department official, “closing all options for Iran,” making the United States, in effect, a “ de facto ally of Iraq.”

Even some of Iraq’s most vocal American partisans have reservations about the course and conduct of U.S. gulf policy over the past two weeks. A long-time Middle East observer said, “We are being more antagonistic without improving the situation,” adding that it “increases the risk to everyone by motivating the Iranians.”

What little motivation the U.S. Navy needed to take on the Iranians was provided on April 14 when the frigate Samuel B. Roberts hit Iranian mines, causing injuries to 10 U.S. crewmen. Administration officials worked round the clock for the next three days planning and then monitoring the U.S. Navy response.

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Initially, Administration spokesmen, including Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci, put out a garbled explanation of American objectives, leaving the impression that Iranian naval losses were due entirely to their own rash reactions. Subsequently came reports that Administration planners had in fact targeted for demolition at least one Iranian frigate in addition to the oil platforms.

More important, during this period the uniformed services, particularly the Navy, took advantage of the outbreak of hostilities to press for expansion of gulf responsibilities. Specifically, the Navy requested and was provisionally granted the right to allow local commanders to exercise their own judgment in responding to Iranian threats to neutral shipping. “During the heat of battle,” complained a State Department official, “Carlucci gave into military pressure.”

But the State Department did not exactly perform gloriously either. “(Secretary of State George P.) Shultz was nowhere to be found,” admitted one State Department insider. And by all accounts, Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost, who has primary responsibility for representing State Department views on the gulf, was, to quote one U.S. official, “rolled over.” A veteran analyst of the Persian Gulf region and former U.S. official explained, “Armacost often gets rolled on gulf matters because his heart isn’t in it. Armacost’s attitude pretty much is ‘Why the hell are we involved?’ ”

Not surprisingly, the Pentagon strongly supports the Navy’s request for expanded duties. Said one Defense Department official, “It’s the Navy that is floating around here--not the State Department--unfortunately!” Such supporters point out that Congress, too, got into the act by pressing for more U.S. naval protection. Members of Congress are in part responding to pressure from U.S. shipowners who, for financial reasons, choose to register their ships under foreign flags, making those vessels ineligible for U.S. naval escort. This kind of “constituent pressure” has helped blunt ideological considerations--especially among Senate liberals.

Perhaps the Pentagon’s most telling argument is that the Navy is trying to wrest the military initiative from Iran; an official explained, “We want to change unpredictability from Iran’s side to ours.”

The State Department acknowledges that until now the Navy has indeed operated under rigid constraints. And officials admit that it must be frustrating for combat-trained crews to stand idly while neutral ships are attacked. But these same officials say that by offering blanket protection to foreign shipping, the United States raises a host of thorny political and legal problems. Even so, their most fervent argument is that the present setup best suits U.S. interests; a State Department expert declared, “It’s why we haven’t gotten into trouble so far.”

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Meanwhile, many people in the Administration are indeed apparently looking for trouble. According to one well-placed official, “The atmosphere is not to put up with this anymore from Iran.” And a number of informed sources agree that the next hostile move against U.S. citizens or property will probably result in a direct strike on the Iranian mainland.

While some experts believe any Iranian-U.S. confrontation can be confined to the Middle East, others are not so sure. The doubters argue that like the PLO, the Iranians may be looking for targets of opportunity wherever they can be found.

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