DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — U.S. warships, running on high alert, escorted another Kuwaiti tanker down the Persian Gulf on Wednesday as Iran issued new threats to retaliate for the American attack on one of its naval vessels two days earlier.
Gulf-based shipping sources reported increased Iranian naval activity at the southeastern end of the gulf near the Strait of Hormuz, through which the tanker Gas Prince, re-registered under the American flag and accompanied by an unspecified number of U.S. escorts, is due to pass sometime today.
"Tension is very high. Everybody is expecting the Iranians to do something rash," one shipping source said. "Commercial shipping is staying as close to the Arab side of the gulf as possible."
U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East also went on the alert and issued warnings to American citizens to exercise caution in their movements in the wake of Iranian threats to retaliate for the attack on the Iran Ajr, an Iranian naval vessel caught in the act of laying mines in a busy commercial sea lane northeast of the island emirate of Bahrain on Monday night.
The Iranian Cabinet, meeting in Tehran to discuss the attack, called upon Iranians to prepare themselves to "confront the American conspiracy" against Iran, a broadcast by Tehran radio said.
'Humiliation of U.S.A.'
The chairman of the Cabinet meeting, Islamic Guidance Minister Mohammed Khatami, said the attack has raised tension in the gulf "to the highest possible level" and has "opened up a new phase in the defense of Iran . . . (that) will lead to the humiliation of the U.S.A.," the radio reported.
The meeting followed a series of threatening statements by Iranian leaders, including Mohsen Rezai, the commander of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, who said the attack was tantamount to a declaration of war on Iran by United States.
"Now the time has come when we, God willing, will deliver a decisive blow at the Americans, a response never before witnessed in American history. . . ," Rezai told Tehran radio late Tuesday. "America should know that we will certainly deliver this blow in the near future."
The shipping sources, reporting unusually intensive Iranian naval activity around the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday, said Iranian warships were challenging commercial vessels to see if they were carrying war materials for Iraq.
A knowledgeable source, speaking on the condition that he not be further identified, said the region-wide alert to Americans was not based on any specific information about a possible Iranian attack but rather reflected the need to take "a pretty wide view of who may be at risk," given Iran's record of sponsoring terrorism.
A number of diplomats have expressed fears that Iran, frustrated by its diminishing ability to retaliate against continuing Iraqi air strikes, may resort to more terrorist attacks against unprotected civilian shipping, as well as against countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which support Iraq.
U.S. Neutrality Questioned
Although the United States still professes to be strictly neutral in the seven-year-old Iran-Iraq War, the evolution of its involvement in the region has undermined the credibility of this contention, in the view of many diplomats and other analysts.
"Standing up to Iranian attacks against the ships of countries that support Iraq is inevitably going to be seen as one-sided as long as the Iraqis are allowed, with virtual impunity, to continue attacking ships that call on Iranian ports," a West European diplomat said.
"Certainly, the Iranians seem to view it that way, and they doubtlessly regard the attack on the Iran Ajr as confirmation that the U.S. is siding with Iraq," the diplomat added.
The Iran Ajr, a World War II-vintage amphibious landing craft, was attacked by U.S. Navy helicopters in the central gulf, about 50 miles northeast of Bahrain, Monday night after it was caught laying mines and ignored orders to stop.
Three Iranian crewmen were killed, two were missing and 26 others were taken prisoner after they had abandoned ship.
On Wednesday, the 26 Iranians, four of them wounded, were still aboard the command ship La Salle, flagship of the U.S. Mideast Force, and the amphibious assault ship Guadalcanal. The Iranian seamen are to be repatriated "in the very near future" through the Red Crescent, the Islamic equivalent of the Red Cross, in Oman, Pentagon officials said. The transfer could take place as early as today, sources indicated.
The captured Iran Ajr has been towed to an anchorage northeast of Bahrain, where it remains under Navy guard. "A decision has not yet been made on the disposition of the ship," a Pentagon spokesman said.
Shipping sources said U.S. warships have warned commercial shipping to stay clear of the area where the Iran Ajr was attacked while Sea Stallion helicopters from the Guadalcanal sweep the sea lanes for mines.