KUWAIT, JUNE 5 -- Kuwait's bold decision to involve Moscow and Washington in protecting its oil tankers from Iranian attack has thrown into confusion years of efforts to create a viable joint defense pact among the Arab oil states of the Persian Gulf.
The Kuwaiti plan -- which has been denounced by Iran, secretly encouraged by Iraq, heatedly debated in the United States and intentionally ignored by western Europe -- has now also caused a lot of embarrassment to the six-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council.
Arab and western diplomats and analysts expect little to emerge from a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday of the foreign ministers of the council member states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
One council ruler privately vented his anger by denouncing Kuwait as "a vulnerable little country which insists on acting as if it was a big power." He said Kuwait was endangering them all by involving the superpowers in a long-shot gamble to end the nearly seven-year-old Iran-Iraq war.
At the heart of the council's disarray is the tacit understanding that despite a decade-long accumulation of more than $25 billion in sophisticated weapons, its members still feel too weak and divided to provide for their own defense or to let outside powers help out.
For Washington, that knowledge also reinforces apprehensions of those who see the dangers of the United States defying on its own -- or in unwanted tandem with Moscow -- an unpredictable Iran in the narrow confines of the gulf.
Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 prompted the Carter administration's concern about Moscow's designs on the gulf, Kuwait had been the most outspoken Arab gulf country in opposing overt military cooperation with the United States.
Contributing to this record was Kuwait's dedication to "positive neutrality" in its relations with the superpowers, its pioneering regional role in establishing diplomatic relations with Moscow in 1963 and its refusal to accept an American ambassador-designate on grounds he had served as consul general in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
When a reluctant Reagan administration agreed in principle to protect Kuwait's tanker fleet by registering 11 ships under the American flag, it acted largely to prevent the Soviets from doing likewise, an alternative that was seen as allowing the Soviets a major and unopposed entry into the western-dominated gulf and its seemingly limitless oil reserves.
But the other gulf council members -- made wary by what they see as U.S. blunders ranging from the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran to the deployment of Marines to Lebanon, increasing identification with Israel and clandestine arms sales to Tehran -- found reasons not to seize on Kuwait's major change of heart toward Washington, barely disguised as a new form of "balance" with Moscow.
U.S. credibility, as viewed from the gulf, is simply too suspect to risk openly defying Tehran and its Shiite Moslem revolutionary zeal for the Sunni-run gulf council governments. These governments know most of their oil is found in areas with large Shiite minorities not immune to Tehran's call for subversion.
As in the past, the gulf council prefers U.S. military muscle to be the "over the horizon" kind, which means out of sight and stationed mainly on Diego Garcia island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
The need for land-based aircraft to protect American warships and U.S. commercial shipping was voiced immediately after Iraq's air attack May 17 on the USS Stark. Providing air cover from U.S. aircraft carriers, which for safety's sake must be stationed outside the gulf, is considered by military specialists as a makeshift solution.
Nonetheless, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, recently went on record as saying no air cover was needed to protect U.S. vessels. Analysts and diplomats suggest he was making a virtue of necessity.
A hesitant Saudi Arabia, the most populous and powerful gulf council member, reportedly has turned down U.S. requests to use its airfields for American aircraft or to commit its own largely U.S.-supplied Air Force to provide air cover.
Although a more important financial backer of Iraq than Kuwait, Saudi Arabia has sought a limited rapprochement with Tehran, invoking its leading role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries as an insurance policy against Iranian attack on its oil installations.
Staunchly anticommunist Saudi Arabia was said to be furious with Kuwait for inviting the Soviets into the gulf, but it nevertheless is considering diplomatic backing of Kuwait's policy, if only to prevent what it views as further Kuwaiti pro-Moscow folly.
The United Arab Emirates, which has lucrative trade ties with Iran, has no such plans. Informed sources reported the U.A.E. navy commander said he had no plans to deal with increasing Iranian attacks in its territorial waters. More surprising has been the attitude of Oman, the only gulf council member granting the United States major permanent military facilities. Foreign Minister Yussef Ibn Alawi recently visited Iran, a trip that diplomatic sources said was designed to "avert a crisis with Tehran" in any Iran-superpower confrontation.