WASHINGTON — President Reagan today vowed that he will not permit a "barbaric country" like Iran to close down oil-shipping routes in the Persian Gulf and cause "economic havoc" around the world.
Reagan warned that American warships escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers under U.S. flag in the gulf will retaliate and "fire back in self defense" if fired upon.
He refused, however, to say how far the United States would go in punishing Iran if it attacked a U.S. vessel. "I don't think that's a question I should even attempt (to answer)," Reagan said.
While stressing that U.S. actions in the gulf will be defensive, Reagan said, "It's far better if the Iranians go to bed every night wondering what we might do than us telling them in advance."
Speaks to Foreign Newsmen
Reagan made his comments in an interview with television journalists representing the six nations whose leaders will meet with him in Venice, Italy, next month at an economic summit.
Asked about the risk of Iran declaring war on the United States, Reagan replied, "I doubt that Iran would ever declare war on the United States, knowing what the inevitable consequence would be." He said inflammatory statements made by Iranian officials obviously were intended for audiences in Tehran.
Reagan denied that the increased role assigned to U.S. ships was intended to provoke a response from Iran.
"I have to say we're not just in there daring someone to do something," he said.
However, he said, the gulf is an international waterway through which oil flows to the rest of the world.
"Can you imagine the precedent that would be set if we all stepped back and said, 'Well, this barbaric country has a right to close down these international waters and bring down the economic havoc that it would on so many countries.' No. We're seeking nothing except the right of commercial trade between the nations of the gulf--those that are not embroiled in the Iran-Iraq war--and we're going to do that," he said.
On another subject, Reagan said he hopes to meet this fall with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and he hopes Europeans who say Gorbachev is more popular than he is "will wake up soon."
'It's Up to Gorbachev'
"I am hopeful that this fall we will have a summit meeting," Reagan said, noting, "It's up to Gorbachev to set the date."
He said that the Soviet leader "has agreed to come" to Washington for a summit meeting and the invitation is still open.
Reagan also said that "great progress has been made" toward an agreement on medium-range missiles in Europe, adding, "We have the best opportunity in history of reducing nuclear weapons."
As for European polls showing Gorbachev is more popular than Reagan, the President said: "Yes, I hope they'll wake up soon. I mean no derogation of Gorbachev . . . but I do believe that we have a better record of abiding by treaties."
Press Corps Blamed
Responding to a question regarding the Iran- contra scandal, Reagan blamed the Washington press corps for his drop in popularity.
"I know that damage has been done to my credibility," he said. "But it has not been done by anything that has been proven. Quite the contrary, it has been the image that has been created by our own, particularly Washington press corps, in describing what took place."
The President said in an interview Tuesday that he had never considered resigning over the Iran-contra scandal, adding "I don't feel I'm faced with any crisis."