Analysis : Role in Gulf Bolsters U.S. Credibility, Ties to Arabs

Times Staff Writer

One year after the disabling of the U.S. frigate Stark and the loss of 37 of its crew in an Iraqi missile attack, a massive U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf has greatly bolstered American credibility in the region and contributed significantly to closer strategic cooperation between the United States and the conservative Arab regimes along the vital waterway.

But due to what some critics say is still a confusion of aims and a consistent misreading of Iranian actions and reactions, the stronger U.S. presence has not yet achieved the more vital purpose of hastening an end to the nearly 8-year-old Iran-Iraq War.

Moreover, its positive achievements have been purchased at a price for which the 46 American lives lost in the gulf so far may only be the down payment. Begun with great fanfare and flag waving one year ago, the U.S. military commitment in the gulf is now open-ended, deepening by the day and impossible to reverse except at the cost of all that it has accomplished thus far.


This assessment, generally positive but tinged nevertheless with much anxiety, reflects the views of more than a dozen Arab officials and Western diplomats interviewed in the gulf over the past week. Their consensus can be summed up as follows:

So far so good, but the worst--and with it, the real test of America’s determination--may be yet to come.

Even by the standards of destruction made possible by today’s conventional weapons, the Persian Gulf War has been a particularly gruesome conflict--a macabre marriage of World War I-style trench warfare and attacks by modern missiles and chemical weapons that has claimed more than 1 million lives with, in the end, little territorial gain or loss by either side.

It is the longest conventional, or non-guerrilla, conflict of the 20th Century, and it has been going on for so long that, to all save Iran, its origins seem almost irrelevant now. Iraq started it, but, more relevant now, Iran refuses to end it.

And yet even in this seemingly interminable conflict whose outcome is as difficult to foresee as its beginning is to reconstruct, a few dates stand out.

One such date was May 17, 1987, the day that an Exocet missile fired by an Iraqi plane slammed into the side of the Stark while the guided-missile frigate was on a routine patrol in the central gulf northeast of Bahrain, resulting in the loss of 37 American lives.

It was all a terrible mistake, the Iraqis said afterward, and the United States accepted that explanation. Yet it was also a fateful mistake, one that, in the opinion of most analysts, helped the beleaguered Iraqis to realize their long-held ambition of internationalizing the gulf war.

Massive Deployment

For, while the United States had already agreed to Kuwait’s request for naval escorts to protect 11 of its tankers from Iranian attacks, it was the Stark incident that, by dramatizing the dangers American sailors now had to face, was largely responsible for the deployment of U.S. forces in the gulf on a massive scale.

At first, the seeming haste and confusion with which the U.S. deployment was subsequently launched led the timid Arab states facing Iran along the western shore of the gulf to view it with grave misgivings. They feared that internationalizing the war would lead to its uncontrolled expansion. They feared that Washington was laboring under two illusions: that it could accomplish its mission in the gulf fairly quickly and without serious cost, and that Iran, faced with such overwhelming American military superiority, would shy away from a confrontation and eventually conclude that it had no choice but to make peace with Iraq. Most of all, they feared that, having barnstormed into the gulf amid a lot of media hoopla, the United States would “cut and run” when reality sank in and more American lives were lost.

That has not happened. It is true that while the Navy convoys have protected Kuwait’s tanker fleet, the American presence has not as yet contributed significantly to the larger aim of making the gulf safe for international shipping. On the contrary, attacks on merchant traffic, by both Iran and Iraq, escalated nearly 300% in the six months that followed the attack on the Stark.

Yet, in dealing in a measured but firm way with subsequent Iranian provocations, in demonstrating its determination to keep the gulf’s narrow sea lanes free of Iranian mines and, most of all, in maintaining its resolve even in the face of nine more American deaths, the United States “has finally convinced its gulf allies that it means what it says,” one diplomat said, “that its word can be counted upon, that it is not going to cut and run and leave everybody who has to live here in the lurch.”

The effects of this turnabout are hard to quantify, even though they are plainly apparent. The U.S. presence, for instance, has helped to embolden the gulf states into taking a more confrontational stand of their own against non-Arab Iran, thus increasing Tehran’s diplomatic isolation. Saudi Arabia carefully portrayed its cutoff of diplomatic relations with Iran last month as a sovereign and independent decision, yet most analysts doubt that the Saudis would have made the move had the United States not previously proven its commitment to the security of that state and its other allies in the gulf.

A ‘Glowing Success’

Thus, despite a shaky start, the U.S. deployment has evolved, over the past year, into what Ambassador Sam Zakem, the U.S. envoy to Bahrain, describes as a “glowing success . . . the most successful example, in fact, of American policy anywhere in the world today.”

Recent interviews with other Arab and Western officials up and down the gulf revealed a similar, if less effusive, consensus that the United States has managed its role in the region intelligently and successfully, in a way that has enhanced American credibility and led to much closer military cooperation with such states as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia than would have been thinkable only a year ago.

This, at any rate, is one way of looking at it. But there is also another, more pessimistic view that recognizes the fact that the United States has consistently failed to understand Iran’s “Through the Looking Glass” logic and thus has been taken by surprise on a number of occasions by the Iranians’ seemingly irrational behavior.

This was clear on April 18--another significant date in the gulf war--when U.S. warships destroyed Iran’s Sassan and Sirri oil platforms in retaliation for the Iranian-laid mine that injured 10 sailors and nearly sank the U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts in the central gulf four days earlier.

It was apparent, diplomats say, that the United States did not anticipate Iran’s response. The U.S. Navy had destroyed another Iranian oil platform last October in retaliation for an Iranian attack on a U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tanker and, apart from a lot of threatening rhetoric, there was no immediate Iranian response.

U.S. Fleet Engaged

This time, however, the Iranian navy engaged the U.S. fleet. In the ensuing fighting, six Iranian vessels, including two frigates, were either sunk or badly damaged. One American helicopter, along with its two Marine crew members, was lost.

Until April 18, Iran’s warships had steered clear of the U.S. Navy. Previous clashes with Iran had all involved gunboats of the more fanatical Revolutionary Guards, whom even the ruling mullahs in Tehran can barely control. The use of regular naval forces this time suggested an element of calculation that the United States clearly had not counted on, diplomats said.

It is possible, although unlikely, that the Iranians thought they could really deal a damaging blow to the U.S. fleet. Far more likely, however, diplomats said, is that the attack was ordered to distract attention at home from the more damaging defeat Iran suffered a day earlier, when Iraqi forces recaptured the Faw Peninsula, lost to the Iranians two years earlier.

“The regular Iranian navy has never played a very important role in the war against Iraq, and I don’t think the Iranians minded losing a portion of it in order to blunt the psychological blow of Faw,” a Western military analyst said. “It allowed them to portray the loss of Faw as the result of a great conspiracy by the United States instead of a defeat by Iraq.”

Indeed, the events of April 18 seem now, in retrospect, to be less important for themselves than for what preceded and followed them, several analysts said.

No Great Victory for Iraq

The loss of Faw was a defeat for Iran but not a great victory for Iraq, except in the psychological sense. Judging by the ease with which the Iraqis retook it and the absence of any signs of heavy fighting, there seem to have been few Iranians left to defend the peninsula. Along with Iran’s failure to mount a winter offensive this year and signs that the long-neglected regular army is finally being given a greater role in the conduct of the war, this suggests that losses within the Revolutionary Guards and the corps of young recruits known as Basiji are finally creating severe manpower problems for Tehran.

Until last month, conventional wisdom held that, although Iran could not win the war, Iraq, by its consistent timidity on the battlefront, could still lose it. But Tehran’s increasingly apparent manpower problems, combined with its string of setbacks in April, are leading many experts to re-examine this assessment.

Some, although not all, now think that April marked a real turning point in the war.

“The whole situation in the gulf changed tremendously in April,” a Bahraini official said. “The Americans went farther, in the clashes on the 18th, than anyone expected they would and showed clearly, for the first time, that they were really serious about the security of the gulf.

“At the same time, the convergence of events--Faw, the naval battles and the Saudis breaking relations--was unprecedented. It has put real pressure on the Iranians. They are really in trouble.”

Element of Wishful Thinking

Other analysts caution that there may be an element of wishful thinking in describing April as a turning point, even if it does turn out to be Iran’s cruelest month so far. They note that Faw was of only marginal strategic importance to Iran, that the fundamental stalemate on the ground has not changed and that Iran shows no signs yet of being any more willing to end the war.

Moreover, the Iranians have demonstrated “time and time again that they do not react to setbacks the way Western logic says they should,” one diplomat said.

Last month’s events left the Iranians more isolated than ever before, yet isolation feeds that sense of persecution that is one of the main psychological planks on which the Iranian revolution rests. Indeed, the war and the revolution have become so deeply interlocked over the past eight years that they depend on each other. It is a perverse and deadly symbiosis that the mullahs who rule Iran cannot afford to sever without risking their own positions.

Still, as it experiences increasing difficulties in continuing the war, Iran’s reactions to future setbacks are likely to become even more unpredictable than before, thereby posing more unforeseen risks for American forces in the gulf, diplomats and other officials said.

Virtually every official interviewed expressed concern about Iran resorting to increased terrorism if it is prevented from retaliating for Iraqi attacks on its shipping by the Reagan Administration’s expanded rules of engagement for the Navy.

Clash All but Inevitable

Few expect that Iran will allow those rules to go untested, and most consider another U.S.-Iranian clash in the gulf to be all but inevitable.

But if the Iranians cannot find a way of maneuvering around the Navy, as they have done in the past, then “their reaction is definitely liable to be more terrorism,” a Bahraini official said, “and I wouldn’t confine it to the gulf, or even Europe. I’d start worrying about New York.”

There are signs that this may already be happening--two bomb blasts in the past week in Kuwait, following on the heels of last month’s hijacking of a Kuwaiti airliner from Bangkok, for which there is abundant evidence of Iranian involvement.

“They will choose their own time and their own place, but one thing’s for sure: The Iranians will try to find a way of retaliating for April 18,” said a Dubai-based shipping official who has been following the war since it started. “You Yanks have done a pretty good job so far, but if you want to win this game, you’ll have to do one thing better.

“You’ll have to learn to predict the unpredictable.”