WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger suggested today that U.S. Navy warships might protect other vessels in the Persian Gulf beyond the 11 Kuwaiti tankers they are escorting through the troubled waterway.
"If we are aware of a ship under attack, if the people there need help, we would respond," Weinberger told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as he defended President Reagan's gulf policy.
At another point, Weinberger said tankers that are owned by U.S. companies, but which fly other national flags, could also be protected.
"If they requested specific coverage for a specific voyage, yes," the Navy might protect the U.S.-owned ships, Weinberger said in answer to a question from Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).
Weinberger refused to spell out the exact circumstances under which Navy ships would aid other vessels or protect U.S.-owned shipping, saying he did not want to tip the U.S. hand in advance and provide information that could be used by Iran.
Congressional critics of Reagan's gulf policy say that because Kuwait has aided Iraq, the United States could be drawn into the 7-year-old Iran-Iraq War.
There have been several U.S.-Iranian incidents in the last two months. The most recent occurred Monday, when Navy gunfire destroyed two Iranian oil platforms the United States said were used as military installations. That action came in retaliation for Iran's missile attack last week on one of the reflagged Kuwaiti tankers.
There have also been attacks on ships that are owned by U.S. companies but registered in other nations, flying so-called "flags of convenience."
Navy officials have considered seeking a change in the "rules of engagement," the circumstances under which weapons can be fired, to permit protection of U.S.-owned ships. But there has not yet been any major change in those rules, Weinberger said.
He warned Iran against future attacks on U.S. shipping. "There will be a high cost" to Iran if that nation continues to attack gulf shipping, Weinberger said.