The U.S. and allied response to the crisis created by the Persian Gulf war so far has differed significantly from earlier ill-fated efforts to closely coordinate allied reactions to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of U.S. diplomats hostage in Iran.
The allies no longer are using the high-visibility crisis management meetings that characterized the sometimes acrimonious attempts to harmonize responses to the earlier crises. Instead, a complex network of informal, behind-the-scenes consultations has grown up among the allies and gulf states since the fighting between Iraq and Iran began.
This network was used to assemble quietly at least 60 U.S., French, British and Australian warships in the Indian Ocean. They could be used, if it became necessary, to protect oil tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
"For once, we were speaking out less while getting some muscle in place," said one well-informed American analyst of allied policy.
But these consultations also have been used by the allies to warn Iran and Iraq of the dangers of widening the war, to reassure other gulf states of Western concern for their safety, to encourage and assist Islamic diplomats in their attempts to mediate an end to the conflict, and to assure the Soviet Union that the West wants to avoid a superpower conflict over the gulf.
Britain, France and West Germany in particular are exploiting their close diplomatic relationships with various Persian Gulf countries, according to officials, and also are keeping lines open to the Soviet Union. The United States has intensified its contacts with Saudi Arabia, to which it sent four AWACS reconnaissance planes, and Oman, where Washington has activated its recent agreement for use of Omani airfield and port facilities by the U.S. military.
Despite the allies' lack of direct influence on Iran or Iraq, Western diplomats believe these behind-the-scenes activities have helped contain the conflict so far. They also hope that they have laid the groundwork for a negotiated peace after the combatants are finally exhausted from what is expected to continue as a slow, inconclusive war.
"We've learned from the problems we had over Afghanistan and the hostage problem," said one highly placed European diplomat. "We don't want a high profile. We have the reality of coordination without giving the impression that NATO and some client states in the gulf are ganging up against anybody."
An American diplomat agreed that the consultations showed "real and substantial progress" in allied coordination. But he added that the crisis remained fluid and unpredictable, and the allied moves still lacked an overall political rationale.
Other analysts suggested the crisis had forced some allied involvement in and gulf state acceptance of U.S. efforts to extend Western security arrangements to the Persian Gulf area, including the rapid, deployment military force being developed by the Carter administration for emergency use in southwestern Asia.
Before the Iraqi-Iranian conflict, the oil-producing gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, had expressed concern about the proposed "Carter Doctrine" security umbrella for the region. They worried that it would create an anti-American backlash or internal dissent in the region or increase the danger of superpower conflict over their oilfields.
The gulf states "might now be more receptive to having an American presence near them," said one analyst. "It gives the Americans a chance to push along in a more receptive climate some of the things they wanted to do in the region."
But diplomats pointed out that the gulf states remain very nervous both about the war and the intentions of the United States and the Soviet Union. They fear being forced to choose sides publicly between West and East or between Iraq and Iran, despite their evident distaste for both communism and the revolutionary government in Iran.
Nevertheless, these diplomats believe it has been crucial for the allies to reassure the gulf states that the flow of their oil would be protected without anything unnecessarily provocative being done. Without any formal declarations, U.S., British and French officials have made clear in measured statements that interference with traffic through the Strait of Hormuz will be not tolerated. Privately, the gulf states have been "very pleased" by this, according to well-informed European diplomats.
Contingency plans have been worked out among military officers for how the allied ships in the Indian Ocean would respond to a threat to shipping. But officials still insist that the buildup of warships is not an integrated international task force.
The allies so far have avoided formal consideration of the crisis at meetings of the major powers, all the NATO nations or the European Common Market countries -- the forums that produced disputes with the United States and among the allies about how to respond to the invasion of Afghanistan and the holding of U.S. hostages in Iran.
France, for example, has been able to maintain its desired diplomatic and military independence despite coordination of its warships in the Indian Ocean with those of the United States, Britain and Australia. West Germany, which confines its military activity to the formal limits of the NATO alliance, has stayed out of the naval buildup and concentrated on diplomatic contacts with the gulf states and the Soviet Union.
European diplomats remained convinced that the best hope for mediating an end to the Iraqi-Iranian war lies with Islamic intermediaries such as Tunisian diplomat Habib Chatti, the secretary general of the Islamic Conference, and Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, who is the organization's current president. They are also encouraging but have little hope for United Nations' efforts to end the conflict.
British and West German officials are studying informal suggestions by Jordanian diplomats that a European effort at mediation should be attempted, according to informed sources. But there are as yet no plans for a European diplomatic iniative.
British officials believe, however, that grounds could be found for a negotiated end to the war when the combatants are finally ready to talk. They point to repeated assurances by Iraqi diplomats that Iraq does not want to keep most of the territory it has taken from Iran beyond reestablishing sovereignty over the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between the two countries that provides Iraq's access to the Persian Gulf.
The British recognize the difficulty in convincing Iran to agree to this, even if its shipping rights through the waterway were guaranteed, but still believe room for compromise could be found.
"One can discern ways to negotiate," an official said, "if the political will comes."