As the Iran-Iraq war moves into its eighth year, it threatens to explode into a shooting war between Iran and the United States, a war that could involve the Soviet Union as well. Escalation of the US military presence in the Gulf involves more than the 11 Kuwaiti tankers now flying the stars and stripes. What the Reagan administration wants to do is “reflag” the Gulf itself, using the US Navy’s protective service to draw the Arab states there into open and explicit military alliances with Washington against Tehran and Moscow.

For most of this century, the flag of the Gulf was the Union Jack. The American military buildup in the region is the latest phase in a transfer of imperial “responsibility” from the United Kingdom to the United States that began after World War II. In the 1960s and 1970s, the US had been content to work behind the scenes. The flag of Pahlavi Iran would wave over the Gulf as long as the Shah could stand on the shoulders of Uncle Sam. The revolution of February 1979 and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan late in the year changed all that. The Carter Doctrine and its Reagan corollaries proclaimed a unilateral American military mission in the Gulf.

Iraq’s attack on Iran in September 1980 allowed Washington to extract more extensive Saudi participation in US military plans. At Washington’s direction, the Saudis requested four US Airborne Warning and Control Aircraft Systems (AWACS). The subsequent sale of five AWACS to the Saudis included provisions for “overbuilding” Saudi air bases to accommodate rapid US military intervention. Military construction also accelerated in Oman and Bahrain, and Washington encouraged Saudi Arabia to push for an integrated air defense network with its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

But none of the Gulf states were willing to grant the explicit basing rights that US Central Command planners consider necessary for their mission. As Iranian military pressure on Iraq increased in late 1983 and early 1984, and Iraq riposted by shooting up Iran-bound oil tankers, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy and National Security Council aide John Poindexter toured the Gulf to press anew for greater access for US military forces. The main result was Saudi agreement that the US could station one KC-10 aerial tanker there, which would enable US fighter-bombers based on carriers in the Arabian Sea to hit Iranian targets in the northern Gulf. In addition, US warships began escorting oil tankers chartered by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command to provide fuel for US forces at sea and elsewhere abroad.

Political Threats, Military Response

Iran has since made gains in its annual winter offensives in the ground war, but has not been able to force a rout of Iraqi forces which would prompt Saudi Arabia finally to offer the bases that the Pentagon so badly wants. Two developments, political rather than military, account for the present quest of US planners for land bases on the Arabian Peninsula. One is the domestic crisis in Kuwait that has grown out of its alliance with Iraq in the war. The threat is not primarily one of direct Iranian attack on Kuwait or Kuwaiti tankers. It fundamentally revolves around tensions between the sheikhdom’s ruling Sunni and minority Shi‘i communities, exacerbated by the war. Kuwait, which of all the Gulf sheikhdoms was most insistent on remaining outside any military alliance with the US directly or via Saudi Arabia, has now engaged both superpowers in a desperate effort to force an end to the war, as if this might restore the internal balance of communal forces that existed before the war.

The other new element is the exposure of Washington’s secret arms sales to Tehran. For the Arab states, the secret shipments signaled that Washington was eager to come to terms with the Islamic Republic, and to construct future policy on the edifice of a strategic alliance with Israel and Iran, just like under the Shah. The opening to Iran is, for the time being, slammed shut, but meanwhile the Arab states of the Gulf find it useful to look down another path themselves, the one that leads to Moscow. In order to recoup its position, the Reagan administration has eagerly embraced the reflagging policy that lines up the US more explicitly than before on the side of Iraq.

US strategy remains one of favoring a victory by neither side. But both Washington and the Arab capitals are concerned about Iraq’s capacity to stay in the war. “We can’t stand to see Iraq defeated,” testified Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage on May 29.

The impasse between the two warring states rests on an unusual and somewhat precarious alliance of regional and international powers backing Iraq. Military analyst Anthony Cordesman figures that Iraq has an 8:1 weapons advantage over Iran. The fear is that even this may not be enough. Iran may lack the weapons and the logistical capability to win this war, but Iraq may yet prove able to lose it. In the dry summer months, Iraqi generals customarily put up a brave front for Western reporters who come away convinced that Baghdad can hold the line. Iran’s winter offensives tell another tale. Cordesman reports that Egyptian and Jordanian advisers to Baghdad are distressed by Iraq’s failure to unify commands and integrate intelligence (some of which is provided by the AWACS) into battle plans. Iraq lost an estimated 50 to 60 warplanes, about 10 percent of their total combat aircraft, in raids on Iranian cities and economic facilities between November 1986 and February 1987. Those raids have ceased. Even harder to replace than the warplanes are the pilots to fly them. Just before an Iraqi plane attacked the USS Stark, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger wished out loud that “the Iraqis would use their air force more effectively, because they have complete air superiority.”

Accumulated Failures

Kuwait approached Washington and Moscow with the reflagging proposal at the end of 1986. The Reagan administration responded only in March 1987, after the Soviet Union agreed. It was an impulsive anti-Soviet decision. The accumulated failures of Lebanon, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict left the administration desperate for a means of “showing resolve,” oblivious to the fact that it was the broad policy of the Soviet Union in the Middle East — toward Egypt, the PLO, Iraq and Iran — that had led to their political influence in the Gulf. One official expressed Washington’s growing apprehension about the attitudes of the regimes in the Gulf. “They’re saying to us that they’re beginning to listen more to Soviet arguments on international issues. They’re backing off from the position that the Soviets don’t have a role to play in the Middle East peace process.”

The May 17 Iraqi attack on the USS Stark exposed the confusion and tentativeness of American policy as the administration’s many voices attempted to define objectives (bash Iran? head off the Soviets? freedom of navigation? keep oil prices down? all of the above?). After the Venice Summit one top European leader described the US approach as “pure Kabuki, all motion, with no clear message, much less a plan of action.” Twice White House chief of staff Howard Baker indicated some grounds for cooperating with the Soviet Union, and twice the White House issued disclaimers. Assistant Secretary of State Murphy acknowledged on May 21 that the reflagging scheme might lead to war between the US and Iran. The next day, aboard Air Force One en route to a memorial service in Florida for the 37 US sailors killed in the Stark attack, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said simply, “We disagree.” On May 26, President Reagan told some journalists that the US was in the Gulf as a non-belligerent party. “I do not see the danger of war,” he said. “I do not know how it could possibly start.”

Military Dissent

These public disagreements are only the visible tip of sharp differences at the highest levels. The May 18 meeting of the president’s National Security Planning Group, which decided that increased risk of military clashes with Iran did not require seeking Congressional sanction under the War Powers Act, was described by one source as “tumultuous” and by another as “untidy.” Top military officers apparently see the escalation of US military commitments in the Gulf as a political response to the fallout from the Iran scandal, rather than from any new developments in the Gulf war. “It would be stretching it to say that the [Joint] Chiefs [of Staff] were in on the decision, or even asked their opinion on it,” said one admiral.

On May 24, Defense Secretary Weinberger said flatly that “we need air cover” in the Gulf, and that “basing rights” in the region would be “a very desirable addition.” Three days later a top White House official said “no one is looking very seriously at the idea of full-time air cover. The voices that count are trying to dial things down.” Civilian strategists warn that bases might be advantageous immediately, but would represent political “lightning rods” over the longer term that could threaten the political stability of the regimes they are intended to preserve. Military officers warn that if the naval war in the Gulf escalates, the US will have to base several squadrons of F-15s somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula or else move at least two aircraft carriers to the southern end of the Gulf.

The administration wants to wield military force but is scared of the political consequences of combat casualties. Military commanders fear another Lebanon: a commitment of forces with no specific military objectives, whose outcome is contingent on political developments over which the US has little control. Adm. William Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reportedly told President Reagan that the tanker escort plan required a commitment to retaliate for any attacks on US ships, and a long-term US military presence in the Gulf. Naval commanders in particular are concerned with the fact that virtually full responsibility for implementing the reflagging policy rests with their service. Vice Adm. Robert Dunn, deputy chief of naval operations for air warfare, complained that the force configuration “is going to tie up at least one carrier in that position.” “Whenever we get tied to a particular spot in the world or a particular small body of water by political constraints of other kinds of constraints, then we have lost that flexibility and strength of sea power.” His remedy: “If they need air power, we ought to get the Air Force to provide it from bases somewhere in the area. That’s what the Air Force was designed for.”

The land war between Iran and Iraq, in particular the southern front around Basra, is the core of the conflict. Both civilian and military critics agree that the reflagging policy, as Henry Kissinger put it, “stakes American military prestige to some extent on the outcome of the land war.” But the US is in no position to affect that core; at best it can only affect the war at the margin.

On July 21, the first two Kuwaiti tankers were reflagged just outside the Straits of Hormuz in a “photo opportunity” staged for US media. Three days later, the first reflagged tanker was damaged by a mine that might have sent one of the US frigates to the bottom of the Gulf: The three escorting US warships then lined up behind the tanker for protection as it continued its voyage. Political tensions escalated further in the first week of August, following clashes between Iranian pilgrims in Mecca and Saudi security forces that left more than 400 dead. Top officials in Tehran vowed to “topple” the Saudi royal family in retaliation. All US ships in the Gulf were on Condition 1, the highest state of alert. The USS Constellation with its four score jet fighter-bombers was “over the horizon” in the Arabian Sea. The helicopter carrier USS Guadalcanal and its contingent of 1,800 Marines was moving up through the Indian Ocean to take its position off the Arabian Peninsula. And the battleship Missouri, with its mechanical brain and computerized target maps of Iran, had passed through the Suez Canal on its way to the Gulf.

By this time, US officials were divided about whether to encourage a de facto truce in the tanker war. This would minimize chances for a clash involving US casualties, but it would also allow Iran to devote its attention and resources to the southern land front, raising the prospect of Iraqi defeat that had spurred the intervention to begin with.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork "Reagan Reflags the Gulf," Middle East Report 148 (September/October 1987).

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