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Regional Outlook: Mideast : Gulf States Taking New Look at Regional Defense Force : Living by goodwill is not enough, Gulf Cooperation Council officials say in wake of Kuwait invasion. The council may open its arms to Iran to help bolster political stability.

November 06, 1990|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Even before a resolution to the crisis in Kuwait, the tiny, oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf are drawing plans for a major new regional defense force and quietly endorsing the idea of a larger permanent U.S. military presence in the gulf.

And key gulf leaders have become convinced that the Iranian revolution has "failed" and are ready now to admit Iran back into the gulf fold to bolster long-term political stability in the region.

"We have lived by goodwill," said one government official of the hard lessons learned from the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. "We have discovered that living by goodwill is not enough. Diplomacy has to be based on force."

In the weeks since the crisis erupted, the Persian Gulf states have begun charting a new course that will expand their base of political cooperation from Turkey to Pakistan, permit U.S. military equipment and access agreements in the gulf on a long-term basis and place the small oil sheikdoms in a position to deter future military assaults.

"We learned two things from this crisis. First, we never trust anybody. No matter how much his intimacy with us is. And second is we have to rely on ourselves," said Abdullah Bishara, secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. "Time will not forgive us, and God will not forgive us, if we miss this opportunity."

The gulf states already are lobbying for a long-term multinational peacekeeping force under the direction of the United Nations on the border between Iraq and Kuwait after any withdrawal of Iraqi troops.

Talks are also under way about establishing a permanent council military defense force of perhaps 150,000 soldiers that would act as a deterrent to any future aggression. "We have to ingrain a fighting spirit in our people. This complacency has to be shaken off," Bishara said. But while gulf leaders are determined to never again find themselves defenseless and begging for outside help, it is clear they believe that continued stability in the region is also an international responsibility.

Many gulf leaders are now prepared to accept a long-term expanded U.S. naval presence in the gulf and are also ready to offer permanent facilities for U.S. military equipment and trainers, several officials said in interviews over the past two weeks.

"This gulf is almost the palm of human heritage, it's the heritage of mankind. . . . It is also a gulf of strategic importance, and we want those who benefit from the gulf, who have interests in the gulf, to be represented and demonstrate their commitment," Bishara said. "In the stability of this area, everybody benefits, internationally. So the stability of the area, the continuity of tranquillity, is an international responsibility."

In the wake of the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion, gulf leaders found themselves in a daze of questions and recriminations about how one of the wealthiest regions of the world could have found itself so utterly defenseless.

What about the mutual defense pact that was supposed to send the gulf states rushing to one another's aid in the event of trouble? What role was the gulf region's 10,000-member Peninsula Shield defense force supposed to play against an Iraqi army of 1 million? Why had the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, formed in 1981, failed to establish even a unified economic policy for the gulf? In a region where generous foreign aid had always bought relative security, why were some of the largest recipients of gulf largess--from Iraq to Yemen, Sudan, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization--suddenly turning against their benefactors?

"Their mistake was they tended to believe in this myth of Arab unity, and somehow that vis-a-vis Iraq, they could defend themselves through cooing and billing like lovebirds," said one Western diplomat long stationed in the region.

The problem, several gulf officials say now, was their failure to realize that even generous foreign aid checks were inadequate protection for the world's largest petroleum reserves--and also their failure to realize the weaknesses in their own alliances.

Despite the formation of the cooperation council in 1981, the gulf countries, beset by constant squabbling over arcane border issues and other problems, made little progress on issues such as a common currency and passport and made virtually no headway at all on military cooperation.

Now, however, "we are determined to put all of that behind us," Bishara asserts.

Several gulf officials believe the best way to project a new, stronger front is to develop new strategic alliances, in some cases with nations that as recently as months ago had been sworn enemies. Syria will now be welcomed into the gulf fold, Bishara said. So will Iran.

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