Nervous Arabs voice doubts on US Gulf policy. Gulf Arabs are questioning whether US naval presence really can deter Iran. Tiny Kuwait feels especially vulnerable to direct Iranian missile hits on key facilities.
Kuwait's missile-damaged main oil terminal is expected to reopen this week, but shock waves from the Iranian missile blast that shut it down more than one month ago still are being felt throughout the oil-rich emirate. Analysts say that blast, and two others several days earlier, not only underlined Kuwait's continuing vulnerability to missiles and hit-and-run raids at sea, but also shot a hole in United States' Gulf policy.
Analysts say the missile hits suggest the massive US naval presence in the region is not serving as an effective deterrent to direct Iranian attacks on Kuwait.
In the month since the attacks, the US has sent in a steady stream of high-level military delegations and advisers. Antiaircraft and antimissile defense systems have been beefed up with US help. And areas around sensitive oil facilities now are guarded by radar-reflecting decoy barges to confuse incoming missiles.
``Kuwait is in a better position to defend itself against those missiles than a month ago,'' a diplomatic analyst says.
But others say that because the US retaliated against Iran only for one of the three missiles which hit a US-flagged tanker (and not for the more serious strike on Kuwait's Sea Island terminal), the US has left a dangerous impression with the Iranians: As long as they don't hit US targets, Iran can avoid the risk of American retaliation even for strikes at the very heart of Kuwait's oil industry. This leaves Kuwait open for more attacks, analysts stress.
``The Iranians were not after one load of crude oil in a tanker, they were after the source - the Sea Island terminal,'' an Arab analyst says. According to him, several accurate missile strikes in the region of the Kuwait's Ahmadi oil refinery (10 miles from the Sea Island terminal) would bring the Kuwaiti economy to its knees.
``If they hit in that area - the refineries, the power plants, the desalination plants are all there. It will be a disaster.''
``The Kuwaitis are very nervous,'' adds a Western envoy. ``The danger now is that if the Iranians get really upset they could fire another missile.''
Diplomatic and other sources here now say all three Silkworm missiles fired by Iran into Kuwaiti territory in mid-October were intended to hit the Sea Island terminal. The terminal handles 50 percent of Kuwait's crude-oil exports and is the emirate's only deepwater facility capable of loading supertankers.
The first two missiles - fired Oct. 15 and Oct. 16 - struck two supertankers by mistake because the vessels happened to be in the vicinity, according to this new analysis. Sources say the Silkworm guidance system apparently became confused as the missiles approached the terminal, and veered off in the direction of the larger target - the tankers.
The US cited the Oct. 16 missile, which struck the ``Sea Isle City,'' a Kuwaiti tanker reflagged by the US, as grounds for its retaliation. Three days later, US destroyers fired 1,000 rounds into two evacuated Iranian oil platforms. The Iranian strike on the ``Sea Isle City'' was interpreted at the time as a slap in the face of the US Navy by Iranians still angry over earlier clashes in the Gulf.
It is now thought that Iran fired the missiles at Sea Island in another effort to convince Kuwait to end support for Iraq in the seven-year Gulf war. In this view, the US-flag tanker was hit by mistake.
The decision of US forces to limit retaliation for the tanker blast to a symbolic bombardment of two evacuated Iranian oil platforms is a source of heated debate here. Many Kuwaitis - and other Gulf Arabs - feel cheated. They say the US, with its large build up of naval power, should have bloodied Iran's nose to make Iran think twice about such attacks.
The suggestion that the US is unwilling to use its military power to punish Iran is raising questions about the need for so many - more than 75 - Western warships in the Gulf.
The discontent has even sparked a conspiracy theory popular among some Kuwaitis, that the US could have shot down the incoming Silkworm missiles but chose not to because a few successful strikes might ensure that Kuwait would give the US access to naval and air bases.
There is no indication that US forces detected the incoming missiles, sources say. US naval ships do not enter Kuwaiti territorial waters even when escorting reflagged tankers.
Despite broad statements from Washington that the US will stand by and protect its Gulf friends, US policy is unclear on exactly how or when such protection will take place.
The Gulf states are acutely sensitive to criticism from Iran and other Arab states that they rely too much on the US for protection. Western officials cite this as one reason the US didn't retaliate for the Sea Island terminal missile attack.
Analysts say that if the US had retaliated for the Sea Island missile strike by bombing the Iranian launching site, on nearby Faw, US jets would have had to fly over Kuwaiti territory. That action would directly involve Kuwait, and might expose it to even more Iranian retaliation.