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Iran insists Gulf must be safe for everyone - or no one

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The Reagan administration's apparent delay in fully carrying out its plan to protect Kuwaiti tankers sailing in the Persian Gulf has been greeted in Tehran as yet another victory for the Islamic revolution. ``This is a sign that our firmness is paying off,'' said a jubilant senior Iranian official contacted Friday. ``We stick to our position: As long as the Iraqis attack tankers loading oil from our own terminals, we will retaliate by striking at merchant ships entering or leaving other Gulf countries' ports, be they flying Soviet, American, or any other flag. Neither US naval nor US air escort will deter us from firing at Kuwaiti tankers using the US flag.''

While some Western diplomats in Tehran say Iran's threat is merely rhetoric for domestic consumption, most believe the regime has good reasons to carry out that threat. Some leaders, observers say, are even eager to force a limited confrontation in the Gulf to prove to Iranians that America remains ``the great Satan.''

But an Iranian diplomat in Tehran explains the situation in more direct, strategic terms: ``Our interest is to keep the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz open to everyone, because, after all, we need the Gulf to export our own oil,'' he says. ``We're thus opposed to any spillover of our war with Iraq in the Gulf waters. But you have to realize that our only way to try to deter the Iraqi Air Force from harassing tankers loading oil at our terminals is to disrupt shipping in the vicinity of Iraq's Arab allies' ports. We presently focus on Kuwait because it's Iraq's closest ally in the region.''

An Iranian journalist in London asserts that the decision of the United States and the Soviet Union to protect Kuwaiti ships has left Iran with no alternative but to be adamant. ``This decision's aim is to deter us from attacking shipping in the vicinity of Kuwait,'' he says.

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