The United States would be prepared to hold joint military exercises with friendly Persian Gulf nations that fear they could become targets of Iranian air or naval attacks as a result of renewed fighting between Iran and Iraq, a State Department official said yesterday.
Stressing that Iran's invasion of Iraq earlier this week has "potentially serious consequences" for the United States, the official said the most worrisome thing would be some type of Iranian military action against the generally pro-western, oil-rich states that border on the warring countries.
Those states are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain.
While the United States does not expect that Iran would launch an invasion of these neighboring countries, many of which have pumped billions of dollars into backing the Iraqis, the official said, "There is certainly deep concern about the air and sea strike capabilities of Iran against gulf countries and about the political pressure that a militarily predominant Iran could exert on the area."
As an example of what could happen, the official recalled that in the early stages of the almost two-year war, Iranian planes had bombed some Kuwaiti oil facilities along the border with Iraq.
The official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified publicly, said that no gulf states have made requests "at this stage" for new military maneuvers and that no such maneuvers are scheduled "in the immediate future."
But he said the administration will be talking to the moderate Persian Gulf states about steps that, in their view, "would contribute to an atmosphere of security in that region."
The implication of his remarks was that the United States is willing to display a fresh commitment to friendly nations in the region that might serve as a deterrent to any Iranian action beyond Iraq.
The official, for example, pointed out that in 1980, after Iran threatened other gulf states that were providing financial support to Iraq, causing alarm particularly in Saudi Arabia, the Carter administration dispatched four Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes to the Saudis. The planes and their American crews are still there.
He also called attention to the continued presence in the Arabian Sea of a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier task force and to the permanent group of three or four destroyers stationed at Bahrain in the gulf.
For the moment, however, he said the United States is "thinking more in terms" of joint military exercises similar to those held last year in Egypt and Oman. At another point, he said, "We would pursue that option if there were indications of interest from one or more local states."
The White House said Wednesday that it was consulting with the gulf states on "appropriate steps to support their security," but the official who briefed reporters yesterday would not go beyond that statement when asked if the United States had sent Iran some specific warning.
The official said North Korea is the principal supplier of Soviet-designed military equipment to Iranian forces, which have a sizable amount of Soviet equipment.
Some Soviet-built equipment is also coming from Libya and Syria as well as from unspecified communist nations, he said, although the Soviet role in backing these shipments from other countries is not clear.
He said that the Soviet Union has continued to provide some equipment to Iraq, which has a longstanding treaty of friendship and security with Moscow, but that the Kremlin had also begun sending some supplies to Iran.
A "very limited amount of Israeli equipment" has been provided to Iran, the official said, but none has been delivered "for quite a long time." The supplies that did arrive did not have a significant impact, he said.