BY CHARLES ALDINGER
Reuters World Report
June 17, 1997
Manama.--The United States is not headed towards a clash with Iran unless the Islamic republic starts it, U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen said on Tuesday during a tour of Washington's Gulf Arab allies.
But he again warned Tehran against any attempt to halt shipping in the oil-rich Gulf.
`The United States will not allow this to happen,' he told a news conference in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet which keeps more than two dozen warships in the Gulf.
`The United States retains overwhelming naval strength in the Gulf and we are fully capable of protecting our ships, our interests and our allies.'
Cohen, who previously visited Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, later flew to the United Arab Emirates. Later on Tuesday he was due in Oman before returning to Washington on Wednesday.
`What we have tried to do is to indicate to all of our allies that we are here to provide security against that kind of aggression that might be directed towards them,' he said.
The United States accuses Iran of sponsoring state `terrorism' and has expressed mounting concern since the 1991 Gulf War about what it describes as Iran's growing military capability and its aims in the region.
Iran opposes the U.S. military presence in the Gulf and says Washington falsely accuses Tehran of threatening regional security in order to scare its Gulf Arab allies into buying more American weapons.
Cohen said Iran `continues to support terrorism in addition to developing weapons of mass destruction, improving missiles that can strike neighboring nations and boosting the facility to close the Strait of Hormuz.'
He said Iran this month successfully tested a new air-launched anti-ship cruise missile obtained from China.
U.S. defence officials said afterwards that Iran's air force on June 3 and 6 successfully fired two C-801K anti-ship missiles , one with a live warhead, from an aging U.S.-built F-4 Phantom jet and both test missiles struck barge targets.
`Iran's words and actions suggest it wants to be able to intimidate its neighbours and to interrupt commerce in the Gulf,' Cohen said.
But he said the U.S. military was confident that sophisticated American warships in a force of 26 vessels now in the Gulf could shoot down such missiles .
`We seek to deter any action by either Iraq and Iran. If there is going to be any clash it will have to be precipitated by actions on the part of Iranians.
`Our policy is not to clash with Iran, but rather to discourage and deter any action on their part that would seek to destabilise the region.'
In earlier stops Cohen said the United States would not give up its hardline policy to isolate Iran despite the recent election of a moderate cleric as president, unless Tehran stopped supporting international `terrorism,' trying to develop chemical and biological weapons, and trying to wreck the Middle East peace process.
Some Gulf Arab leaders have urged the United States to open a dialogue with Iran following Mohammad Khatami's election.
Cohen also said at the news conference that Washington believed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein continued to pose a threat to stability in the region--specifically to Kuwait, where Iraq's 1990 invasion sparked the 1991 Gulf War, and potentially to Saudi Arabia.