WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said Sunday that the United States has "a very real capability" for sweeping mines in the Persian Gulf that "can be increased and will be increased."
Weinberger added that there are "all kinds of things" that might be done in retaliation for the explosion that ripped the hull of the re-registered Kuwaiti supertanker Bridgeton while it was under U.S. escort in the upper Persian Gulf on Friday. But he declined to suggest when, where, how or whether such action might be taken, noting that the explosion's cause has yet to be finally determined.
"It has not been firmly established that this was a mine," Weinberger said. "We are just now getting down into the bottom of that tanker. It could have been an internal explosion. I don't think it was. I think it was a mine, but it hasn't been firmly established."
A 'Very Big Gash'
"Very heavy pressure" builds up inside tankers running empty, as was the Bridgeton when the explosion struck the huge vessel, Weinberger said on ABC's televised "This Week With David Brinkley." He indicated that the cause will be determined in Kuwait, where a survey of a "very big gash" that has damaged four of the ship's 31 compartments is under way.
Iran's U.N. ambassador, Said Rajaie-Khorassani, interviewed on the same program before Weinberger appeared, said Iran is "pleased to see that the tanker was hit" but does not accept responsibility for the mine because "there are mines floating all over the Persian Gulf."
Asked what would happen if the United States determines that an Iranian mine damaged the tanker and seeks to retaliate, the bearded ambassador replied that Iran is "prepared for the worst."
Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and another guest on the ABC panel show, faulted the Reagan Administration for embarking on its plan to reflag and escort 11 Kuwaiti tankers without first lining up a united front of Western allies in support of the plan. The first phase of the escort operation ended over the weekend when the damaged Bridgeton and the smaller liquid gas carrier Gas Prince, which had been guarded by three U.S. warships on their voyage up the gulf, reached Kuwait's Al Ahmadi oil terminal.
'Major Attack' Feared
Calling chances that the U.S. Navy escort duty will lead to a shooting war "possible but not likely," Aspin said he was more concerned that it will lead to a "major attack" like the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 servicemen died.
Weinberger did not respond directly when he was asked why the United States has assigned none of its three active-duty minesweepers to the gulf, but he replied that "we have a minesweeping capability . . . and it can be increased and will be increased." The United States currently has an 18-member team of mine disposal experts in the gulf, working with Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti mine-hunting ships and helicopters, and has reportedly been considering sending its own minesweeping helicopters to the region.
The defense secretary offered no specifics on these plans, but recalled that the U.S. Navy had helped in 1985 to clear the Red Sea of mines planted by "Iran, Libya and various people," and had done so "very successfully." In addition, he said, the channel leading to tiny Kuwait's main oil terminal had been swept "very successfully" and "nine or ten" mines found there had been detonated.
Minesweepers Not Needed
"You don't need a minesweeper to do this. We exploded the mines without minesweepers, detonated and destroyed them in the Kuwait harbor," Weinberger said without specifying how it was done.
Noting that convoys through the gulf also face attack by aircraft and small boats in addition to mines, Weinberger said the operation was planned with all three risks in mind. But he said no mines were found in the open waters of the upper gulf until the Bridgeton was damaged there.
Aspin argued that the United States should have undertaken the reflagging operation "in a way in which the signal to Iran is that the Western world and the whole world outside of Iran is in favor of the policy." He said he is concerned about the possibility of an attack on one of the oil convoys from "some unexpected quarter" because the United States, by "going high profile and doing it solo," is not sending "the right kind of signal" to Iran.
"If Iran has to take on the whole Western world, that's one thing," Aspin said. "If it has to take on the 'Great Satan' (as the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's leader, calls the United States) and is able to come up with some nifty little attack on some flank of the Great Satan, that's a whole different story."
Unless Washington recruits a united front, Aspin warned, Iran will "use terrorist attacks to divide the alliance, to divide governments from their people and to cause disarray of the alliance and to cause us to pull back."
On the CBS program "Face the Nation," Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), a Republican presidential contender, supported the decision to transfer the 11 Kuwaiti tankers to American registry to bring them under U.S. Navy protection, while Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who is seeking the Democratic nomination, opposed it.
While "the policy isn't perfect," Kemp argued, it did block the Soviet Union from taking over protection of the Kuwaiti vessels and bringing the Persian Gulf into the dominion of "the Soviet blue-water navy."
The Soviet Union, which has leased three tankers to Kuwait, is believed to have four warships in the gulf at present, three of them minesweepers.
Gephardt argued that the reflagging operation was undertaken because the United States "had to try to retain our credibility in the Middle East" in the wake of disclosures that the Reagan Administration had secretly sold arms to Iran's revolutionary regime.