Where Angels Fear to Tread: The United States and the Persian Gulf Conflict

September 9, 1987 • Policy Analysis No. 90
By Sheldon L. Richman

The Reagan administration’s decision to reflag 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers and deploy a major force of warships in the Persian Gulf is merely the latest in a series of bizarre and blundering steps toward making the United States a full‐​fledged belligerent in the seven‐​year‐​old Iraq‐​Iran war. President Reagan says that increasing the American naval force and protecting the tankers are necessary to defend the principle of free navigation and to prevent the Soviet Union, which is leasing tankers to Kuwait, from establishing itself as a gulf power. Neither reason justifies the new measures or vindicates 40 years of U.S. military and diplomatic intervention in the Middle East. Iraq’s presumably accidental air attack on USS Stark on May 17, which killed 37 sailors, and the mine incident with the reflagged Bridgeton are likely to be only the beginning of the direct danger to Americans in the region if the United States fails to reverse this foolish policy.

The American record in the Iraq‐​Iran war illustrates the meddlesome and often seemingly confused nature of U.S. foreign policy. Although publicly neutral since Iraq started the war by attacking Iran in 1980, the United States has quietly given help to Iraq by, among other methods, furnishing intelligence on Iranian troop concentrations and damage assessments of Iraqi attacks on Iran.[1] The Reagan administration has also given Iraq annual commodity credits of $500 million.[2]

Yet, as revealed in November 1986, the administration also has secretly sold TOW antitank missiles, Hawk surface‐​to‐​air missiles, and spare parts for F-4 aircraft to Iran in a bid to free American hostages being held in Lebanon. This equipment has been credited with giving new vigor to Iran’s war effort. The Hawk missiles appear to have limited Iraq’s air force, giving Iran more freedom of action on the ground.[3] Iran has regained nearly all the territory lost to Iraq when the war opened and now occupies some Iraqi territory. Although Iran is far from having a free hand, it has held on to 120 square miles around Iraq’s gulf oil port of Fao[4] and has threatened Basra, Iraq’s second‐​largest city.[5]

The second major result of the U.S.-Iran arms deal has been the straining of relations between the United States and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. It was the news about the deal that prompted Kuwait, fearful of Iran and wishing to enlist the superpowers’ help in ending the war, to ask the Soviet Union to protect its tankers from Iranian attack. The Kuwaiti government also asked the United States for the reflagging of tankers, but the Reagan administration gave the request minimal attention until the Stark tragedy occurred.

Although Stark was hit by Iraq, the administration used the attack as an occasion to step up help to that country and its ally Kuwait. Perhaps trying to make amends for its hypocritical policy toward Iran–as it was selling arms to Iran, it was condemning others for doing the same–the administration branded Iran “the real villain.” Yet it was Iraq that started the war and particularly the policy of attacking oil tankers of nonbelligerent countries. Since 1984, when the tanker war started, 250 ships have been hit–60 percent of them by Iraq.[6] Moreover, Iran’s attacks on tankers have a distinctly retaliatory cast; whenever Iraq has curtailed its strikes on Iran’s oil facilities, Iran has refrained from hitting ships. Since only Kuwaiti tankers will be reflagged and will qualify for U.S. naval escort, the U.S. proclamation of free navigation looks like a rationalization of its policy. To complicate matters, although the Reagan policy appears pro‐​Iraq at first glance, Iran stands to gain the most from keeping the gulf and the Strait of Hormuz open. Iran, as will be discussed later, sends its oil through the gulf and needs oil revenues to fight the war. Iraq does neither.

Should the United States protect the tankers of Iraq’s benefactor Kuwait? More fundamentally, should the United States even have military forces in the region? Protection of the gulf is presumed to be part of the role the United States took on after World War II, a role in which the country was protector of the free world. Perhaps it is time to rethink this role.

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About the Author
Sheldon L. Richman is director of public affairs at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University and has written widely on Middle East issues.