The Reagan administration, accusing Iran of "escalating tension, intimidation, and destabilization" in the Persian Gulf, vowed yesterday to continue the American naval escort of Kuwaiti oil tankers, and the Pentagon considered establishing a special command to take direct charge of the growing U.S. military presence in the gulf.
State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman said Tehran's warnings that it will avenge the Iranians killed in the Mecca riots last Friday are part of the Khomeini regime's "process of intimidation" long aimed against Arab states that have sided with Iraq since the gulf war began in 1980.
But the Iranian warnings heightened tensions among Defense Department leaders already stung by their failure to prevent the July 24 mine attack that damaged the supertanker Bridgeton during the first gulf escort of reflagged Kuwaiti ships by U.S. warships.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff, in response to the public embarrassment of the mine incident, are considering several proposals for solving some of the problems that have emerged with the continued growth of U.S. military operations, Pentagon sources said.
Sources said one proposal would establish a special military command, headed by a three-star admiral, to coordinate the increasingly unwieldy collection of warships, mine-sweeping helicopters and special operations forces being assembled in the gulf area.
"We're sending so much over there that the water level of the gulf is going to go up two or three inches when it's all in place," said one administration official. Underscoring his views, the Navy this past weekend dispatched the amphibious ship USS Raleigh from Norfolk to Charleston, S.C., to pick up four small Vietnam-era patrol boats to be used as mine sweepers. The ship will arrive in the gulf about a month from now.
A two-star admiral on the command ship USS LaSalle runs the Middle East Task Force, which includes nine Navy ships in the gulf, and scores of helicopters and warplanes based nearby. He reports to a four-star general in charge of the Central Command, based in Tampa, Fla.
The State Department's Redman said yesterday, "In these latest threats, the Iranian regime would seem to have a political interest in exciting its own population, and escalating its campaign of tension, intimidation and destabilization in the gulf."
Department officials, speaking privately, said Iran's actions contain what one called "a strong element of psychological warfare" aimed at frightening the rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia into second thoughts about their cooperation with the United States.
These officials noted that since the gulf war began, Iran has known it could not count on the support of any Arab state except Syria, a bitter Iraqi enemy, and to a lesser extent, Libya. As a result, officials said, Iran periodically has resorted to threats of military action and subversion to intimidate the Arab countries, particularly those in the gulf region, into remaining relatively passive despite their sympathies for Iraq.
The officials said that in the present circumstances, the big question U.S. policy planners face is whether Iran's latest outburst will be largely rhetorical psychological warfare, or become something more, such as some sort of terrorist action aimed at Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or even the United States.
U.S. intelligence agencies have received a growing number of reports about possible terrorist activity, administration officials said, but they stressed that these reports have been sketchy and unsubstantiated by hard evidence. As a result, the officials said, there is a wide range of speculation in intelligence circles about Iranian intentions.
The officials said that despite the continuing threat of mines, a direct attack against U.S. warships escorting Kuwaiti tankers is considered the least likely Iranian course of action, because it could bring the possibility of major American military retaliation against Tehran.
But Tehran's newest threats and the Bridgeton mine incident make the Pentagon uneasy over what officials concede are inadequate protections against attack from small Iranian speedboats that could evade large American warships and planes. They say the Navy is especially vulnerable to this threat, because no force of swift patrol boats, the best defense against small boats manned by terrorists, has been sent to the gulf.
Those military gaps and recent public attention have opened major rifts in the Pentagon military bureaucracy, with different services and commands bickering over where blame lies, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
State Department officials said that some intelligence sources believe that if Iran wants to strike at the United States, it will not do so in the gulf region, but instead use agents in Western Europe to hit U.S. bases there.
Said one official, "The assumption is that if Iran wanted to try something, it will do the unexpected. That leaves an almost infinite range of possibilities, and all that we and countries associated with us in the gulf can do is to keep up our guard and try to anticipate all eventualities."