WASHINGTON — President Reagan condemned the missile attack on a Kuwaiti tanker flying under an American flag Friday, calling it "an outrageous act of aggression" by Iran, but cautioned that speculation about U.S. retaliation would be "unwise."
Reagan, who was awakened just after midnight and told of the incident, met with national security advisers and two key senators to consider options and review the attack on the ship by what U.S. officials believe was a Chinese-made Silkworm missile fired from Iran-held terrority.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said no decisions were made at the meeting.
Kuwaiti officials said a missile struck the reflagged tanker Sea Isle City in Kuwait's territorial waters at dawn. Fitzwater said at least 16 people were injured, one of them the ship's American master, but none of those hurt were in a life-threatening situation.
Kuwaiti officials said the missile used against Sea Isle City was of the same type as one that hit a U.S.-owned tanker Thursday at anchor in Kuwait's waters. That tanker was flying Liberia's flag.
Pentagon officials said they believe the missile was a Silkworm, which has a range of about 50 miles, and was fired from the Iranian-controlled Al Faw region of Iraq.
Asked about possible U.S. retaliation, Reagan said, "I think maybe you are jumping to conclusions here. I cannot and will not discuss what our future action may be, but we're in discussion with the government of Kuwait and it would be very unwise to hint or suggest at anything we might do."
Fitzwater said in a statement: "Iran has committed an outrageous act of aggression against a non-belligerent country--Kuwait--and a U.S.-flagged vessel operating commercially and peacefully in the Persian Gulf. As in such cases, we are examining the full range of diplomatic and other options available to us."
The incident was the first missile attack against one of the 11 Kuwaiti tankers that earlier this summer were re-registered to fly the American flag. All 11 tankers were renamed after cities on the New Jersey shore. In August, the reflagged tanker Bridgeton struck a mine, believed to have been planted by Iran, and was severely damaged.
In September, Army gunboat helicopters fired on an Iranian ship, the Iran Ajr, that U.S. officials said was seeding the Persian Gulf with mines. Earlier this month, the Army choppers shot at and sank three Iranian speedboats that had fired on a U.S. observation helicopter.
Fitzwater said the Joint Chiefs of Staff will consult with members of Congress on the latest incidents. However, he said, there is no Administration plan to invoke the War Powers Resolution, which Reagan views as unconstitutional.
The 1973 law, if invoked, would require the President to notify Congress within 48 hours when U.S. forces are in an area of "imminent hostilities." Congress then has 60 days to vote on whether to authorize the military action.
Attending Friday's White House meeting with Reagan were Sens. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Warner of Virginia, the panel's ranking Republican, White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci.
Warner said later the group talked about the missile strike and discussed possible responses. He would not divulge what responses were mentioned but said he thinks "it would be unwise" to take any immediate retaliation because the sites from which the Silkworms were fired probably are now vacant. The missile system is mobile, Warner said, and can be removed to dodge a strike.
"We are not a paper tiger," he said. "We have reacted thus far quite properly in the judicious use of our force solely for the purpose of defensive means."
The U.S.-flagged tanker had been escorted into Kuwaiti waters by Navy vessels, which ended that journey Tuesday and returned to the waterway.
The U.S.-owned, Liberian-flagged tanker, the 275,932-ton Sungari, was attacked Thursday at Kuwait's Shuaiba anchorage in the northern Persian Gulf, shipping officials said.
Warner declined to say whether he thought the protection of U.S. warships should be extended into Kuwait's oil-loading facility, where the Sungari and the Sea Isle City were hit.
"I don't think we should try to ever outline specifically the means we're going to use for that protection nor the geographic location that we will provide that protection," he said.