With the first real prospect of ending the Iranian hostage crisis in view, US defense planners are giving undivided attention to checking new Soviet or Soviet-inspired moves against the west's oil reservoir in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula.
A 1,800-man US Marine Corps landing battalion aboard the helicopter and personnel carrier USS Okinawa and several other large amphibious ships are to move from the Philippines toward the Arabian Sea by late March.
Instead of being used as a force to "punish" Iran for the Tehran terrorists' actions, as some administration officials had envisaged before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan last Christmas, the Marine unit will help the powerful, three-aircraft-carrier task force shore up Pakistan and nearby oil states.
"Who knows," said one administration defense analyst, "it might even be able some day to answer a call for help from Iran, if we ever got such a call."
The Okinawa is accompanied by the 8,000-ton tank landing ship San Bernardino; the attack cargo ship Mobile ("mother" ship for 18 LCM landing craft), which has its own helicopter landing pad; and the dock landing ship Alamo, which can send assault marines directly onto a beach.
Gen. Robert H. Barrow, Marine Corps commandant, recently told a congressional committee that two of the three US Marine amphibious forces (MAFs) -- which are based on the US East and West coasts and in Japan, could respond to emergencies in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean area.
Many US experts in the Gulf area say the type of emergency most expected in the post-hostage-crisis period is an attempt by Soviet-backed Baluchi tribal insurgents, trained in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and moving southward from the ethnic Baluchi homeland there and in both Pakistan and Iran, to seize the strategic Pakistani naval port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
Use of Gwadar would give the Soviets the goal they have sought for centuries, since Czar Peter the Great and Empress Catherine: a warm-water naval port commanding Indian Ocean sea lanes, now oil tanker lanes for the West and Japan.
A Soviet puppet or surrogate Baluchistan state would, US analysts feel, destabilized the entire Indian Ocean area. Hundreds of thousands of Baluchis work in the oil installations of Persian Gulf oil states, and several thousands serve in the armed forces of Sultan Qabus of Oman, who has offered the US use of strategic military facilities in return for Western military aid.
Last month, say Western intelligence sources the Pakistani Army moved two of its 18 organized divisions to Quetta, capital of Pakistan's Baluchistan Province , following Soviet troop deployments in Afghanistan close to the Pakistani border.
US intelligence experts have their eyes on the strategic Bolan Pass, a vital highway and rail link across Pakistan toward the sea and India.
Soviet-trained Baluchi tribesmen, who fought hard against both the Iranian and Pakistani armies in the early 1970s, use the rugged Bolan Pass country for hideouts in their frequent skirmishing with the Pakistani central government in Islamabad, dominated by another ethnic group, the Punjabis.