Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci will fly to the Persian Gulf this weekend as pressure grows from Saudi Arabia to increase U.S. protection of Arab oil shipping from Iranian attacks and on the eve of new U.N. diplomatic activity aimed at penalizing Iran.
The Pentagon announced that Carlucci will leave Sunday to visit the oil sheikdoms of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman as well as the U.S. naval armada on duty in the gulf since midsummer to protect 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers now flying the U.S. flag. It will be Carlucci's first trip to the area since he succeeded Caspar W. Weinberger in November.
Defense and State Department officials said no decisions have been made either to enlarge the U.S. naval and air presence, which involves about 30 U.S. Navy vessels in or around the gulf, or to expand its role to protection of additional shipping. However, the officials said Carlucci may hear pleas from gulf Arabs along these lines and that his discussions during the trip may figure in high level policymaking after he returns around Jan. 11.
"The Saudis have been making noises about the large number of their ships which recently have been attacked by Iran," a Defense official said. A State Department official described the key Persian Gulf oil power as "more nervous than ever" about trends in the war.
In addition to Saudi Arabia, other maritime interests such as those associated with Panama and Liberia -- which provide "flags of convenience" for much U.S.-owned oil shipping -- are pressing the United States to extend its naval protection to many other "neutral" ships in addition to the reflagged Kuwaiti vessels.
Data compiled by the privately funded Center for Defense Information indicates that attacks on gulf shipping this year have shifted to vessels bound for or owned by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, according to retired admiral Eugene J. Carroll, the center's deputy director. For 1987 , Carroll said, attacks by Iran on gulf shipping have exceeded attacks by Iraq for the first time since the tanker war began in 1984 as part of the seven-year battle between Iran and Iraq.
Carroll said the attacks on Saudi shipping and Saudi-bound shipping have been particularly notable since Dec. 22, when Iraqi warplanes bombed an Iranian oil facility at Larak island in the strait of Hormuz, an area rarely attacked before because it is so far from Iraq.
"The circumstances suggest that the Saudis knew about or even actively assisted" Iraq's attack on Larak island, Carroll said. That may explain the step-up in Iranian attacks on Saudi ships, he said. Until recently, Carroll added, there seemed to be "a gentleman's agreement" that Saudi tankers would not be attacked.
Carlucci is expected to see Saudi King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah and Defense Minister Prince Sultan during his visit. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar, who is Sultan's son, also is expected to be on hand.
In Kuwait, Carlucci's discussions are likely to center on U.S. operations in protecting the 11 reflagged ships, which began in July.
In Bahrain, Carlucci will be able to report congressional approval for the sale of up to 70 U.S. Stinger antiaircraft missiles to that country. Carlucci may hear requests for Cobra helicopter gunships and night vision devices to aid the Bahrain defenses, a Pentagon official said.
A brief visit to Oman, which has taken a more cautious attitude toward Iran than the other Gulf sheikdoms Carlucci will visit, was added to his schedule a few days ago, officials said. The Omanis have quietly made available to the United States facilities on strategically located Massira Island, according to official sources and, in a balancing move, also acted to improve Omani contacts with both Iran and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has been under sharply increasing pressure from the gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, and some U.S. officials believe that has played a role in an apparent Soviet shift toward support for a U.N. arms embargo against Iran.
Saudi Arabia is reported to have been upgrading its contacts with Moscow for several years and holding out the prospect of coordinating its oil policies with those of the Soviets and, in the event of a Soviet pullout, of playing a helpful role in ending the anti-Soviet guerrilla struggle in Afghanistan, which is jointly funded by the United States and the Saudis.
When early this fall the Soviets began to balk over participating in a U.N.-sponsored arms embargo against Iran, the Saudis are reported to have told Moscow in unusually strong terms in Washington and several other capitals that such pro-Iranian maneuvers threaten any future improvement in Soviet-Saudi relations.
Since the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting in Washington, at which the Iran-Iraq war was discussed, the Soviets have begun to make statements indicating a greater willingness to go along with the drive for the U.N. arms embargo.
Soviet diplomats "have now expressed a real readiness to work within the U.N. Security Council" on drafting the arms embargo against Iran, a State Department official said, adding that it may become much clearer in a few weeks how helpful Moscow is willing to be. Carlucci is expected to emphasize U.S. support for the arms embargo as a means of raising the costs to Iran of continuing the war, and to discuss the need to keep pressure on Moscow and other nations to win passage of the U.N. measure.