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U.S. RETALIATION IN PERSIAN GULF : Reagan Aimed to Please Policy Critics, Supporters

October 20, 1987|JOHN M. BRODER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan, in choosing to attack a purely military target far from Iranian territory to retaliate for an Iranian missile attack on a U.S.-registered tanker last week, was seeking a response designed to appease both critics and supporters of U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, government officials and independent analysts said Monday.

Monday's attack on an Iranian offshore oil platform used as a command and communications base for attacks on gulf shipping, generally won praise from Capitol Hill but may not have satisfied U.S. military commanders and some in the Reagan Administration who wanted stronger punitive action.

At the same time, analysts said, the action left the United States in the same uncomfortable position that it has occupied since it began escorting 11 Kuwaiti tankers that were re-registered as U.S. vessels through the turbulent gulf in July: waiting for the next Iranian move and trying to strike a convincing deterrent stance.

Show of Resolve

The limited scale of the U.S. attack--and the 20-minute warning given to Iranian personnel aboard the platform--demonstrated American resolve to retaliate for Friday's attack on the tanker Sea Isle City but not to escalate the conflict with Iran, U.S. officials said.

"Our purpose was to avoid casualties, not to cause them--but at the same time to make (an) important political and military point," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

Other military alternatives presented to the President by the Joint Chiefs of Staff were rejected because they risked loss of American lives and would have involved a direct attack on Iranian territory, Administration sources said. The most widely expected action, an air raid on the launching site for the Silkworm missile that hit the U.S.-flagged tanker, was rejected for these reasons, they said.

In addition, Pentagon officials could not assure the President that an attack on the Silkworm sites, on the Faw Peninsula at the northern end of the gulf, would succeed because the missiles are well-defended and highly mobile. A failed military mission would have embarrassed the Administration and fueled revolutionary fervor in Iran, several Pentagon officials noted.

But the action chosen may not have been sufficient to deter future Iranian attacks on U.S. targets, some officials said. Even Vice President George Bush, while saying that he hopes Iran will "get the message," added, "Nobody thinks this will end it."

Indeed, many analysts expressed the belief that the tit-for-tat nature of the American response leaves the initiative in Iranian hands, allowing Iran to set the tempo and scale of the expanding conflict.

"Iran is in the driver's seat in an absolute sense as the cycle of attack and retaliation continues," Fred Axelgard, a gulf war expert with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Reuters news agency.

In describing the strike, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger stressed that the United States considered the oil platform, which has not produced oil in nearly a year, to be a purely military target. Iranian navy and Revolutionary Guards units had used the platform for radar surveillance of shipping, machine gun attacks on passing ships and helicopters, and as a base for armed speedboats that have been harassing shipping, Weinberger said.

"We considered this the most appropriate target this morning," Weinberger said.

But other military officials said that Monday's action was not vigorous enough to deter further Iranian attacks.

"The Iranians probably will be confused by this," said one senior Navy official. "It's ambiguous. The Iranians don't view this as a 'tit-for-tat, now we're even' situation. They want to drive us out of the gulf."

Secretary of State George P. Shultz, in Egypt on Monday, said the U.S. attack "was precisely the right response" to Iran's Silkworm attack and that no future retaliation was planned.

Diplomatic Note

Shultz said the United States sent a diplomatic note to the Iranian government through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran underlining the United States' intention to resist Iranian attacks on U.S. and allied interests in the gulf.

"They should know that the nature of a deterrent is that you have a sufficient force there to do the job and that you're willing to use it if necessary," Shultz said. "We show capability, we show steadfastness and we show willingness if necessary."

He said that the United States had informed the Soviet Union as the attack began Monday morning.

A fear voiced by Democrats in Congress and outside analysts critical of Administration gulf policy is that continued U.S. attacks on Iran--even if solely retaliatory--will push the United States closer to a de facto alliance with Iraq in its seven-year-old war with Iran.

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