WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, on Sunday both questioned the wisdom of the Reagan Administration's plan to reflag Kuwaiti tankers to bring them under U.S. Navy protection in the Persian Gulf.
"I think it's a bad idea to get ourselves militarily involved," Kissinger said during an interview on NBC's televised "Meet the Press." He emphasized, however, that he lacks full information on the proposal and said he will reserve final judgment until he is filled in on a report on Persian Gulf security that President Reagan is expected to submit to Congress on Tuesday.
Nunn, asked on the same program for comment on the reflagging proposal, said he is "very skeptical" of the plan to register 11 Kuwaiti tankers under the American flag to qualify them for escort by U.S. Navy vessels through the Persian Gulf war zone, where the U.S. warships would risk attack by both Iraqi and Iranian forces.
The plan lacks consensus support, Nunn said, suggesting that "the Administration would be best advised to delay it." The end of June has been the tentative target date for initiating the plan, which was under development May 17 when a missile attack on the Navy frigate Stark by an Iraqi warplane, apparently by mistake, left 37 sailors dead. The Stark was then on escort duty in the gulf.
While the nominal reason for reflagging the Kuwaiti vessels is to protect the flow of gulf oil, Nunn said, most oil leaves the gulf in Iranian ships, which remain subject to Iraqi attack. Noting that the plan would offer no protection for ships of other allied nations, he said it shows "a strong tilt toward Iraq."
Criticism by Aspin
The plan has also come under criticism from Nunn's House counterpart, Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who told a news conference Saturday that the reflagging scheme is "a policy in trouble" because it does not involve U.S. allies who should be "escorting some of the tankers." But Aspin, like Nunn, declined to say whether Congress is likely to act to halt the plan.
Kissinger, who was secretary of state in the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, is now a leading voice in the conservative American foreign policy Establishment. In office, he was credited with development of the so-called Nixon Doctrine, which relied on the now-defunct regime of Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to keep the peace in the Persian Gulf.
Kissinger supported and defended a 1976 deal that permitted Iran to buy $10 billion in U.S. weapons to carry out its peacekeeping role. Many of the weapons reverted to the revolutionary regime that deposed the shah in 1979.
During Sunday's interview, Kissinger questioned whether the level of attacks on gulf shipping is any higher this year than it was in 1986 and said that, anyway, "most of the attacks come from Iraq."
"So, by getting involved on--in effect--the Iraqi side, we are taking on a belligerent commitment" without knowing how the hostilities will come out, he said.
"If the American national interest is involved, of course we should be prepared to fight Iran," he said. "But it's not something one likes to slide into, one tanker at a time, when one cannot define what the war aim is and what the terms are."
Both Kissinger and Nunn rejected a suggestion that was advanced, then withdrawn, last week by White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. that the United States and the Soviet Union cooperate in keeping Persian Gulf sea lanes open.
"I think that would be a disaster," Kissinger said, "because the Soviet aim, and the Russian aim, for a century and a half has been to establish a foothold in the warm water area in the Persian Gulf. We have an interest in keeping Iran from winning the war, but we do not have an interest in establishing the Soviet Union in the Persian Gulf. . . . We may have a very short-term common interest, but I would not consider that an area for superpower cooperation."
Nunn agreed with Kissinger that there is no convergence of interest in the gulf itself but said there may be benefit both to the United States and the Soviet Union if the war ends under such conditions that Iran "will not become the dominant empire in that whole region."
To ensure such an outcome will require help from the Soviet Union and from NATO allies because "we've lost a lot of credibility in trying to cut off arms (sales from the allies) to Iran," he said.