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Gulf Mess Gets Messier

October 20, 1987

The perhaps wistful word from the White House and the Defense Department is that the United States doesn't want any more trouble with Iran. As Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger put it, Monday's naval bombardment of an Iranian oil platform brings to an end the incident begun last week when an Iranian missile hit one of 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers operating under U.S. naval protection. In Weinberger's view, Monday's retaliatory strike means that the books are now balanced. Iran, however, indicates that it has a different notion of how debits and credits should be figured.

U.S. officials have made a point of describing the action taken by the four destroyers as limited and measured. Limited, certainly, in the sense that far heavier damage and casualties could have been inflicted if other Iranian targets had been attacked. But measured? One thousand 5-inch shells fired against a small stationary target would seem either to reflect alarmingly on the quality of U.S. naval marksmanship or, far more likely, to suggest that Tehran was being sent an unsubtle message about the force that the United States can apply.

Iran may be impressed by this show of strength, but that's not the same thing as being deterred. It has, predictably, threatened vengeance, and that threat must be taken seriously. Many experts on Iran are still saying what they have said all along: that the ayatollahs are rational enough not to jeopardize their fight against Iraq by inviting conflict with the United States. Maybe. What the record shows, though, is that Iran has not reduced its level of naval warfare as more U.S. forces have entered the Persian Gulf, nor has it shied away from attacks on U.S.-protected targets. By any measure, in fact, the gulf has become a more dangerous place since the U.S. deal with Kuwait took effect in July.

It didn't require great foresight to see all this coming as the Reagan Administration casually made the United States an intervenor in the gulf war, nor does it take unusual perceptiveness now to see how the United States has become stuck with the consequences of this policy. If Washington seemed to back off in the face of Iranian aggressiveness, its standing with the Arab states of the gulf and their nearby allies would plummet. But continuing on the current course only intensifies the risks of a more serious conflict with Iran--one that almost certainly would include anti-American terrorism elsewhere in the world.

This is the mess that the United States has stumbled into. Is there any way out? At the moment the only discernible exit sign seems to be provided by the U.N. Security Council's call for a cease-fire in the gulf war, and the reserved if remote chance of an international arms embargo on Iran to enforce it. That is, admittedly, a very thin possibility to hang hopes on. Right now, though, it's the only possibility in sight.

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