The United States, increasingly concerned by the continuation and likely escalation of the war between Iran and Iraq, is exploring various policy initiatives designed to halt or at least contain the three-year conflict, administration officials say.
The imminent delivery to Iraq of five French Super Etendard attack aircraft and repeated Iranian threats to close the entrance to the Persian Gulf if its oil installations are attacked have prompted a new sense of urgency reflected in State Department pronouncements in recent weeks.
The French jets, used with considerable success by Argentina against British ships in last year's Falklands conflict, can be armed with Exocet air-to-surface missiles already delivered to Iraq, and U.S. officials fear that they will introduce a new element of risk into the warfare.
"We're looking at every possible way to become more active in bringing the war to a halt," one administration source said. "The United States does not want both sides bled white. We're looking at all kinds of things."
Options under consideration reportedly include:
* Raising the issue of the war at the forthcoming session of the U.N. General Assembly.
* Attempting to persuade U.S. allies who openly supply weapons or spare parts to both sides to staunch the flow or at least attach conditions to their arms sales.
* Tightening controls on the illegal export of weaponry and spare parts from the United States and other nations to Iran.
Officials argue that while the enhanced capability provided by five Super Etendards may have been exaggerated, the mere perception that they are a threat could encourage the Iranians to escalate the conflict.
The United States, Britain and West Germany are said to have asked France to attach conditions to delivery of the planes but have had no response. The jets' transfer to Iraq by French-trained Iraqi crews is imminent, according to diplomatic sources.
The United States is especially concerned by Iranian threats to prevent oil exports from the Persian Gulf if Iranian export capabilities are impaired by Iraqi attacks. Iraq warned earlier that it would destroy Iranian oil reserves and installations.
The Tehran government said at the end of July that if France or other nations provide fighter planes to Iraq, "Iran will destroy the security of the Persian Gulf." That prompted the State Department to reiterate the U.S. commitment to freedom of navigation in the Gulf, a matter, it said, "of vital importance to the entire international community."
During the recent visit here of Ismat Kittani, a senior Iraqi diplomat, State warned that it was "a grave mistake for anyone to believe that continued warfare, whether through economic or military means, will accomplish constructive political objectives."
The U.S. position, the statement continued, is to "avoid steps that could contribute to the prolongation or escalation of the war. We continue to encourage other countries to take the same approach."
Like other western governments, diplomatic sources said, the United States does not want to lean too heavily on Iran for fear of driving it into the arms of the Soviet Union. And it was Iraq, they recall, that launched the war in September, 1980.
The State Department is sensitive to charges that it has "tilted" toward Iraq, with which the United States has a close working relationship despite the formal absence of diplomatic relations, severed in 1967.
The Iraqis, though, complain that Washington could, if it wished, bring greater pressure on the Iranian government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to seek a negotiated peace. Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz attacked the United States and the Soviet Union earlier this summer for their "vicious cycle of weakness" in not acting to end the conflict.
A similar message was conveyed to the administration last week by Kittani, who came here on what U.S. officials described as a "mission to raise U.S. interest in the war." He met with Undersecretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger; Nicholas A. Veliotes, assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, and Gregory J. Newell, assistant secretary for international organization affairs.
Iraqi sources said the United States had encouraged the government of President Saddam Hussein to explain its position in this country. Kittani met with several private organizations, such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Foundation, and also met members of Congress and the media.
Administration officials have gone to considerable lengths to persuade the Baghdad government that the United States is deeply concerned not only about escalation of the war but also about its continuation, a nuance of diplomatic language whose significance was not lost on the Iraqis.
Whatever action the United States decides upon, officials said, it will be consistent with the administration's policy of neutrality toward the conflict. They stressed that a range of options remains under consideration.