Bahrain is seeking Stinger antiaircraft missiles to defend its oil installations from possible Iranian attack in return for increased access to its military facilities by U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, according to congressional and diplomatic sources.
The Stinger is among several advanced weapons that Arab gulf states are expected to request from the United States soon to cope with the escalating threat from Iran. If pressed here, the demands are likely to confront Congress and the Reagan administration with a new set of controversial arms sales just as the Pentagon is seeking wider access to gulf states' military facilities.
A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also want Stingers and that four of the six Arab gulf states were "actively considering F16s or similar aircraft."
"Pressure is building in the gulf states for new arms purchases, in particular air defenses, such as new aircraft, and Stinger missiles," the Senate report said. "The prospect is that the administration and Congress will have to address requests for limited numbers of high-performance aircraft."
Without naming them, the report indicated the four gulf states considering seeking F16s are Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar.
Oman is under U.S. pressure to buy F16s instead of Tornado aircraft from Britain, according to gulf sources.
Because of its reported effectiveness in shooting down Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan, the Stinger, a shoulder-fired missile that homes in on a low-flying aircraft's heat emissions, is now viewed as "an effective, low-cost adjunct to an air defense arsenal" wanted by Arab gulf rulers to defend their oil installations, the Senate report said.
Bahrain's ruling emir, Sheik Isa Khalifa, requested Stingers of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger during his visit to the gulf island sheikdom Sept. 27. Earlier that month, the emir told a Senate Foreign Relations staff group he wanted the missiles, according to diplomatic sources in the gulf.
U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain Sam H. Zakhem has reportedly defended the request and pressed the administration to provide the weapons.
An administration source said that, contrary to the general congressional understanding, the recent compromise between Congress and the White House over a proposed $1 billion arms package for Saudi Arabia did not include a promise not to sell Stingers to Bahrain.
The administration had been considering a sale of 70 Stingers and 14 launchers to Bahrain separate from the Saudi arms deal. The administration source said the White House might seek to sell the missiles to Bahrain later and would consult with Congress about it, even though arms sales under $14 million do not require this.
Legislation introduced in the Senate by Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and in the House by Mel Levine (D-Calif.) would impose a one-year minimum ban on Stingers to Arab gulf states or require congressional authorization for their sale.
DeConcini and Levine said their bills were in response to reports that Iran has obtained Stingers from Afghan rebels and that pieces of a Stinger launching package were found in a speedboat U.S. forces captured in the gulf Oct. 8.
U.S. arms sales to Kuwait, whose 11 reflagged tankers now have U.S. naval escorts through the gulf, are likely to prove just as controversial. Administration officials have discussed such sales and concluded that the congressional attitude is not likely to be favorable, reflecting the fact that despite the U.S. commitment to protect the reflagged ships, Kuwait has been the most reluctant of the Arab gulf states to expand access to its ports and airfields to American military forces.
U.S. and Kuwaiti officials say there has never been a formal American request for such access; Kuwaiti officials have emphasized that it would be useless for the United States to ask for access. In an interview Tuesday, Kuwait's defense minister, Sheik Salim Sabah, asserted, "We will not allow such bases to be erected in Kuwait, no matter what they may be or in any form they may take and there is no way pressure can be exerted on us from outside to grant such facilities."
Administration officials say that given Kuwait's attitude, they believe it unlikely Congress would approve a major arms sale of aircraft or other weapons.
"It would be difficult to put the sale through Congress," said one official. "Go find me 300 people on the Hill for selling arms to Kuwait."
He also noted other problems, such as the long lead time needed to get the aircraft to Kuwait and the few qualified Kuwaiti pilots available.Foreign correspondent Patrick E. Tyler contributed to this report.