WASHINGTON — Republican congressional leaders, fearing political fallout from any deeper U.S. involvement in the Iran-Iraq war zone, on Thursday pressed President Reagan to justify his policy and seek support and assistance from Japan, West Germany and other allies.
Reagan, meeting GOP leaders at the White House, replied that "vital United States interests" in the oil-rich Persian Gulf make it "essential for us to maintain the naval presence," reporters were told. But he agreed to discuss the issue at next month's economic summit in Vienna with U.S. trading partners who benefit most from secure sea lanes in the gulf.
Allies 'Ready to Listen'
Secretary of State George P. Shultz told reporters later in the day that European allies "are ready to listen and see what they might do that would fit into a plan."
Shultz added: "We believe freedom of navigation through the gulf and the Strait of Hormuz is of vital interest to us and our allies in the West, and we will stand up for that."
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) emerged from the morning session to tell reporters that there were widespread "reservations" among Republicans in Congress and nationwide over "whatever our policy may be" in the gulf.
"I have been traveling around the country, and I think there are a lot of reservations on the part of the people," Dole said. "We get about 7% of that oil. . . . I don't believe they (Administration officials) have yet explained any real reason that we should be providing free escort service to every country that depends on that part of the world for its oil supply."
Also, Dole complained that he and other GOP leaders had not been sufficiently briefed on the stated U.S. policy of placing elements of Kuwait's tanker fleet under the American flag and escorting them through the gulf, where neutral shipping has become increasingly endangered by fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, which has raged for 6 1/2 years.
Shultz said the United States expected the first Kuwaiti ship to fly the U.S. flag sometime next month. Other officials said the date was probably about the middle of the month, a slippage of about two weeks from the schedule anticipated last week.
The purpose of re-registering Kuwaiti ships as American vessels is to afford them U.S. Navy protection. Shultz said that some of the re-flagged ships would be escorted by U.S. warships, though in other cases such close protection might not be necessary.
"It is very important to us and to the West generally that that pool of oil, which is basically the largest in the world, not be dominated by hostile powers," he said.
Shultz also said the gulf naval force would require air cover, "and it is much better to do it from airstrips in the region" than from aircraft carriers. However, he said that no nation in the region has been asked either to provide air base facilities or to fly the air cover with their own aircraft. He said Saudi Arabia appears to be the only nation in the region with a large enough air force to do the job itself.
Dole expressed annoyance at the White House's insistence that Congress had been consulted on the emerging gulf policy, saying: "I'm not certain who they consulted with. I don't think we want to leave the Persian Gulf area--but I do want a clarification of our policy."
In response, Shultz said that the plan to re-flag Kuwaiti ships had been known for months but that "it is only after this mistaken attack on the (U.S. frigate) Stark that anybody has taken much interest in it. We've been offering briefings and talking to people on the (Capitol) Hill, but it was hard to get anyone to pay attention before, but now they are very interested."
In addition, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, addressing the regular White House press briefing, read a long list of consultations on gulf policy with committees and subcommittees of both Houses, going back to the middle of March and even earlier.
"We recognized the growing problem all through the early spring months and kept Congress informed along the way," Fitzwater said. "Quite frankly, the interest wasn't too high until after the Stark incident."
The attack on the Stark left the White House in the precarious position of assuaging domestic fears about the risks of military operations in the gulf while maintaining a firm stance with potentially hostile states in the region.
When asked point-blank if the United States would "go to war" to protect its interests in the gulf, Shultz replied: "The United States has no intention and will not get directly involved in the Iran-Iraq War. We are not going to war with either party. . . . We are saying that we stand for freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz."
"Is that a 'no?' " a reporter asked.
"Yes, it is a 'no,' " Shultz replied.
'We Will Defend Ourselves'
However, he said, "if our ships are attacked anywhere, including the Persian Gulf, we will defend ourselves. That's not going to war, that's defending ourselves."