The Stinger antiaircraft missile, given instant international fame by ragtag Afghan rebels who have used it to shoot down scores of Soviet aircraft, has suddenly become the latest in a long series of tests of U.S. support for jittery Arab allies in the Persian Gulf.
It has also become the latest policy-political battle between Congress and the Reagan administration over military sales to Arab nations. The administration wants to sell the tiny island sheikdom of Bahrain 60 to 70 of the missiles, along with 14 launchers, for $7 million.
Such weapons sales normally pit Israel's congressional supporters and the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) against a highly defensive White House. This is again the case, but with several quirks this time around.
For starters, taking the lead in the Senate campaign to kill the sale is Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), a member of the intelligence committee, who does not seem to have been stirred to action by supporters of Israel.
DeConcini has been leading his one-man campaign for more than a year to curb the spread of Stingers -- first by the scores and then by the hundreds -- throughout the Third World to U.S.-armed rebels in Afghanistan, Angola, Chad and now, perhaps, Bahrain.
He is concerned that terrorists might acquire the highly effective portable weapon and shoot down a civilian airliner somewhere. Iran already has received a handful of Stingers from one of the Afghan resistance groups and may have fired one at a U.S. helicopter this fall.
Another quirk involves a rare break in the normally solid ranks of Israeli and AIPAC supporters. Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) is defending the sale, which has put him in a position contrary to that of many of his pro-Israeli colleagues.
Although AIPAC has not announced its formal stance on the proposed Bahrain sale, it has made its opposition known in the Capitol's corridors.
In the House, Solarz tried to maneuver an exception for Bahrain to a ban on Stinger sales to all but the United States' closest allies. His amendment failed, and he voted against the ban proposed by Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) and Rep. Lawrence J. Smith (D-Fla.) and approved Nov. 18 by the lopsided vote of 322 to 93.
To the distress of the White House and the amazement of DeConcini, the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday voted to ban the sale of Stingers to Arab gulf states for this fiscal year after a hard-sell effort by a top-level Pentagon delegation led by Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman William J. Crowe Jr.
DeConcini also overcame the opposition of the chairman and ranking minority members of the committee's foreign operations panel, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.), who tried to push through an amendment allowing an exception for Bahrain.
White House and State Department officials assert "there is no intention in any quarter of this administration to back off on this thing," as one put it, and that U.S. military and political interests in Bahrain are so "vital" today that a defeat of the sale would be a disaster.
How the little Stinger became such a big item in the future of U.S.-Bahraini relations is a subject of some dispute.
Some opponents of the sale are claiming that two individuals were largely responsible for putting the bee in the Bahraini bonnet -- Solarz and the U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, Sam H. Zakhem, a Reagan appointee.
Solarz, in an interview, laughed at the suggestion that he had pushed Bahrain to ask for the weapon. He said he had been unaware Bahrain was asking for the Stinger until he visited the sheikdom during a tour of Arab gulf states last August.
There, he said, Bahraini officials presented him with the "compelling argument" that if the United States was willing to risk providing Stingers to Afghan rebels, it certainly could give them to a country that provides everything but formal bases to the U.S. Middle East Force and whose oil rigs had already been hit twice by Iran.
He indicated that he was not convinced by the argument that it would be dangerous to sell Stingers to Bahrain because they might fall into the hands of Arab terrorists. The Middle East was already "awash" with 20,000 portable Soviet surface-to-air missiles, he said, a figure that was also mentioned in a Nov. 20 letter from Carlucci to Senate Minority Leader Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) defending the sale.
Carlucci argued that if Stingers are not provided to the Arab gulf states, the denial would lead to "an even greater proliferation of SA7s and other portable Soviet air defense systems" that were "not carefully safeguarded" the way the Stingers would be.
Meanwhile, State Department and Pentagon officials say Zakhem, who according to congressional sources has been a zealous proponent of the Stinger sale, was not the source of Bahrain's request, either.
The origins of the Bahraini request go back "a couple of years or more" to when the Pentagon conducted a study of the potential military needs of friendly Arab nations, one Defense Department official said. This at least suggests that the Pentagon may have been initially responsible for arousing the Bahraini interest in the Stinger. But Pentagon officials noted that Bahrain did not formally ask for them until early last summer.
In Bahrain's case, the country needs a weapon to defend its oil installations from Iranian air attack on extremely short notice, because the island is only a couple of minutes' flying time from Iran.
Carlucci said in his letter that the Stinger's "portability, fire-and-forget mode of operation, effectiveness against helicopters and low-flying, high-speed aircraft" make it "the best available system" for countries such as Bahrain needing to fill gaps in their air defense coverage.
Former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger also was a strong proponent of providing Bahrain with the Stinger.
A number of Arab states -- Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates among them -- have long desired the Stinger, but only Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have formally asked and only the Saudis have received them.
President Reagan used his special emergency powers to bypass congressional opponents, sending 400 Stingers and 200 launchers to Saudi Arabia in May 1984. However, Congress killed an administration effort to sell 72 Stingers to Jordan in 1985.
The Bahrain battle will resume when the full Senate takes up an omnibus spending bill, to which it is expected the DeConcini ban will be attached.