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U.S. Toughens Its Stance in the Gulf : Reagan, Defense Chief Cite Will to Strike Back

October 18, 1987|MELISSA HEALY and NORMAN KEMPSTER | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Reagan, leading top Administration officials in taking a tougher stand on the Persian Gulf, on Saturday called the U.S. role in the Middle East "that of peacemaker" but warned that any action against commercial ships flying the American flag in the region "will be dealt with appropriately."

Reagan, in his weekly radio broadcast, stressed that freedom of navigation in international waters "is a cardinal principle of our policy and, especially in that region of the world, a vital interest." The United States, he added, has proven itself "a reliable ally" to several pro-Western nations of the Middle East.

Retaliation Seems More Likely

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Secretary of State George P. Shultz echoed the President's strong words Saturday. Weinberger, who confirmed in a TV interview that a tanker attacked Friday was struck by an Iranian Silkworm missile, said America has "a capability and a will and a resolution to take appropriate responses." In Saudi Arabia, Shultz said that "we will defend our interests, and we are prepared to act in support of them."

The statements by Reagan and his top advisers, made a day after Iran launched its first attack on a U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tanker, appeared to heighten the possibility of some form of retaliation for the missile strike. In initial statements after the incident, the President and his aides avoided any indication that retaliatory plans were being set in motion.

On Saturday, however, the Administration was clearly signaling that it would not stand for continued provocation in the gulf, leaving open the possibility of retaliation for the attack on the tanker. The U.S.-registered Sea Isle City was struck by an Iranian Silkworm missile in the incident, which injured 18 crewman, including the vessel's American captain.

"When we have decided what action to take and have taken it, you will hear about it," Shultz told reporters in Jidda. Although he did not say how or when the action would take place, his remarks departed from those he had made only a day earlier in Israel, when he stressed that Friday's attack took place in Kuwaiti waters--possibly implying that any retaliation would be up to Kuwait.

U.S. Bears Responsibility

Weinberger, interviewed on the Cable News Network, suggested that America bears the responsibility to respond to Friday's attack on the Sea Isle City. "Basically, the government exists to protect Americans . . . all over the world," he said.

And Weinberger, who called the strike "a continuation of a very unacceptable course of action," hinted that the United States may respond to the strike, saying, "I don't think we have to worry about our reputation." The Administration has long vowed to retaliate for strikes at U.S. targets.

Earlier Saturday in Kuwait, Foreign Ministry Under Secretary Suleiman Majid al Shaheen reportedly said his country was no longer sure that the missile was an Iranian Silkworm. He said his government could confirm only that the missile was fired from the Iranian side of the Shatt al Arab waterway, which forms part of the recognized international frontier between Iran and Iraq.

Tried to Shoot Missile Down

Shaheen confirmed, however, that Kuwaiti soldiers attempted to shoot down the incoming missile as it sped toward the Sea Isle City, although he gave no details, according to Western diplomats. Diplomats have said that Kuwaiti troops on an island in the Persian Gulf fired a shoulder-held SAM-7 at the incoming missile, but it missed.

There has been speculation that the incoming missile might have been a different kind of missile because it traveled about 60 miles, longer than the known range of the Silkworm, and maneuvered in a more sophisticated way.

But Weinberger, asked specifically about its identification as a Silkworm, said, "Our belief and our information is that it was a Silkworm."

Earlier in the day, U.S. naval demolition experts had boarded the damaged Sea Isle City at a Kuwaiti port to determine what kind of missile was used in the attack and to inspect the damage it caused.

Shultz said that Iran's increasingly bellicose action seems to be intended to probe "how we define our red lines"--the point beyond which U.S. retaliation would be automatic--and denied a published report that the United States had spelled out this threshold in a diplomatic note to Tehran.

Instead, Shultz said, the Administration "told Iran that we are there to protect our interests and those of our friends and allies. . . . We will defend our interests, and we are prepared to act in support of them." He added that the United States would not split hairs to find a graceful way to avoid striking back.

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