President Reagan ordered the Navy to end its tightly controlled convoys of U.S.-registered ships in the Persian Gulf on Monday, but he promised the ruler of Kuwait and representatives of other Arab states that the United States will maintain a substantial naval presence in the strategic waterway.
The White House announced that because the Iran-Iraq cease-fire has reduced the military threat in the gulf, the Navy no longer will accompany American-flagged merchant ships on every mile of their transit, although U.S. warships will remain in position to respond to any attack.
However, Reagan told Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, the ruler of Kuwait, that the United States has no immediate plans to reduce the size of its gulf fleet. A senior State Department official said the President added that there will be "no reduction in our determination to protect freedom of navigation."
Reagan, in New York for a farewell speech to the U.N. General Assembly, also met with the foreign ministers of Israel and Egypt in an effort to revive an American plan for an Arab-Israeli settlement. But he acknowledged that his Administration has made only limited progress in the Middle East peace process.
As he was posing for photos with Egyptian Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Reagan was asked if the failure to produce a new Middle East settlement was the greatest disappointment of his eight-year tenure. He replied, "I think all of us would have liked to make more progress than we did . . . but it's not a complete failure."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the change in U.S. naval operations in the gulf was like switching from "man-to-man coverage to zone defense." He said tankers that were previously shadowed by U.S. warships throughout the 550-mile transit of the gulf now will be passed from zone to zone by naval ships that will keep in close radio communication and will be prepared to move swiftly to defend a ship in distress.
Called a Modification
Reagan described it as "a modification that will not reduce our ability to protect" ships flying the American flag, including Kuwaiti tankers that were re-registered in July, 1987, to bring them under naval protection.
A Defense Department official said tankers still will be accompanied through hazardous passages, such as the narrow Strait of Hormuz, where Iran has placed Silkworm anti-ship missiles, but would be allowed to travel on their own in less dangerous areas.
Senior Pentagon officials have made no secret of the fact that they hope to reduce the Navy's 27-ship escort armada as soon as possible without sending out the political signal that they are eager to abandon the gulf.
The Navy expects to pull one ship out shortly as a result of the change in convoy operations, officials said. At an average monthly cost of roughly $17 million, operating the escorts has been a drain on the Navy's increasingly tight budget.
Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy, the Administration's top Middle East expert, said that fighting in the gulf stopped as a result of the Iran-Iraq cease-fire that took effect Aug. 20. But he said negotiations aimed at establishing a durable peace have made very little progress, and "it would be foolish to make major changes in our force levels until those negotiations show some success."
Murphy, who attended Reagan's meeting with Sheik Jabbar and a later session with the Arab foreign ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, said the Kuwaiti ruler told the President that it was up to the United States to determine its own naval presence but "what concerns us is that the sea lanes stay open."
U.S. officials said Reagan's meeting with the Israeli and Egyptian foreign ministers was intended to revive interest in Secretary of State George P. Shultz's peace initiative. However, Reagan was preaching to the already converted: Egypt is the only Arab state that already supports the plan, and Peres, the Israeli foreign minister, also backs the proposal. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir objects to many of its key provisions.
Peres, leader of the centrist Labor Alignment, and Shamir, head of the rightist Likud Bloc, are engaged in a bitter contest for Israel's Nov. 1 general election. Likud officials have accused the United States of staging the meeting to boost Peres' election chances. However, Reagan said he was not taking sides in Israeli politics.
Murphy said that Meguid, who has warm relations with some factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, told Reagan and Peres that the PLO leadership must find a way to acknowledge Israel's right to exist without alienating the organization's most radical factions.
Murphy also said that Meguid sought to clarify PLO suggestions that a Middle East settlement could be built around the 1947 U.N. Security Council resolution partitioning British-ruled Palestine into Arab and Jewish states.
Israel Rejected Plan
Israel, in a stand endorsed by the United States, has firmly rejected even discussing the never-implemented 1947 plan, which assigned to the Jewish state far less territory than Israel controlled even before its 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. According to Murphy, Meguid said Egypt supports the 1947 plan, not to establish precise borders but to fix the principle of two states.
In brief remarks with reporters, meanwhile, Reagan seemed to raise hopes for the release soon of American hostages in Beirut.
"I have high hopes," he said. "But I'm superstitious about calling a no-hitter before the game is over." However, Fitzwater said later: "There is no new signal or morsel of information that gives us any reason to be more hopeful than we have been in the past."