WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), just back from a visit to the Persian Gulf, warned Saturday that hasty U.S. military commitments could lead to involvement in the Iran-Iraq War and urged that the United States obtain assurances of help from its allies "before we begin escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the gulf."
"Europe and Japan receive 10 times the amount of oil that we receive from Kuwait," Sasser said in the regular Democratic broadcast responding to President Reagan's weekly radio talk. "They depend much more heavily on oil from the gulf countries than we do, and therefore our allies must share in the responsibility and danger of maintaining the flow of oil.
"We should obtain assurances that this will be the case, obtain those assurances before we begin escorting Kuwaiti oil tankers through the gulf."
At the same time, Sasser urged that the United States, "with our allies in Europe and Japan, . . . must send a strong message to the governments of Iran and Iraq, a message that the free nations will not tolerate the Iran-Iraq War ensnaring other countries and threatening the oil supply of the Free World."
Sasser, who returned last week from an inspection of the Stark, the frigate badly damaged on May 17 by an air-launched Iraqi missile that killed 37 crewmen, warned that an increase in the U.S. military presence in the gulf will "risk direct involvement in the savage six-year Iran-Iraq War."
Despite these admonitions, Sasser gave tacit support to the firm Administration position restated Friday by President Reagan, saying that the United States "does have legitimate interests in guaranteeing the freedom of the seas in the Persian Gulf."
To defend those interests, Sasser said, there must be careful planning for contingencies, as well as "rules of engagement that recognize the probability of attack" and are "known to friend and foe alike." An "absolute must" for such plans, he said, is "land-based air cover, with the cooperation of the gulf states."
U.S. credibility is at stake, Sasser warned, because the secret sale of arms to Iran, which began in 1985 when Washington was publicly asking its Arab friends to isolate Iran's revolutionary regime, has damaged the perception of the United States as a reliable ally.
While his words upheld the President's basic approach, Sasser's look-before-you-leap admonitions kept his views in line with those of Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who said Friday he wanted to know more about "possible risks to our ships and to the lives of our men" before assenting to U.S. policies.
These issues may be clarified this week, when the Democratic-run Congress is expected to take up legislation requiring Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to report within seven days on how the Administration proposes to carry out plans to protect 11 Kuwaiti tankers that are expected to begin service under the American flag late in June.
Administration officials hope for passage of the legislation, which they see as a less-undesirable alternative to invocation of the War Powers Act of 1973. The act requires a president to notify Congress about deployment of U.S. forces to areas where they may face hostile action and sets a 60-day limit on such commitment.