Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday that Britain has "sent word informally" that it will "continue to consider" a U.S. request for mine-sweeping help in the Persian Gulf. Britain rejected the proposal Friday.
Fitzwater said "high-level" contacts were made with British officials Saturday after the Foreign Office announced the rejection. He said the administration was informed "that the matter was still under advisement as far as they were concerned, that there had not been a rejection, and they look forward to discussing the matter with us."
Fitzwater said that the United States is "gratified to see the clarification" and that the British were "concerned enough about the interpretation" of their Friday response to make the new contact Saturday. Informed administration sources said that Britain is not actively considering reversing its decision but that the White House and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government were displeased by the impression Friday that Britain had refused a U.S. appeal for help.
One of the sources said the U.S. request, carried by Ambassador Charles H. Price II, was for general help to clear gulf mines after the reflagged Kuwaiti tanker Bridgeton was damaged by a mine July 24. This source said the British responded that they cannot help now but will continue to review the situation.
A Foreign Office statement on Friday said Britain would seek to reduce tension in the region but has "no plans to send mine sweepers into the gulf in the present circumstances." British officials emphasized then that they were not being critical of U.S. gulf policy, and the statement said the situation would remain under "constant review."
John Hughes, a spokesman for the British Embassy here, confirmed that British officials had "reaffirmed" their policy Saturday.
An informed diplomatic source said the Foreign Office statement was meant to convey that the refusal to help with mine-sweeping equipment was not permanent. "This isn't never," the source said.
A second informed administration source said the British might be willing to reconsider if the justification were portrayed not as a a U.S. appeal but an international need for clearing the gulf of mines. Also yesterday, asked about the deaths of Iranians demonstrating on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Iranian threats of retaliation directed at the United States and Saudi Arabia, Fitzwater said he is not aware of any U.S. move to put its forces in the region on higher alert.
"We remain committed to the reflagging and the escort of ships in the gulf. We have all seen the press reports about the Iranian excercises there, but there has been no direct response that I'm aware of," he said.
"Iran makes threats all the time, and we have to take them all seriously and there's just no way to really categorize or quantify those . . . . They certainly have a right to hold operations there, yes," he said.
Fitzwater said the United States does not view the conflict in Mecca and threats from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as a response to the U.S. reflagging of Kuwaiti oil tankers. "I can't explain what Khomeini had on his mind when he makes various speeches," he said.Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.