MIDDLE EAST: Policeman of the Persian Gulf

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Stretching 500 miles southeastward from the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to a narrow strait that doglegs around the tiny tip of Oman, the Persian Gulf may be the world's most valuable and vulnerable waterway. At such desert-edge ports as Ras Tanura, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Dhahran and Kharg Island, scores of supertankers congregate like wallowing whales to suck up crude oil. Daily they plow through the gulfs warm waters and out through the Strait of Hormuz carrying some 20 million bbl. of oil—almost half of the non-Communist world's consumption. If the gulf were closed, the effect on the U.S., Europe and Japan would be devastating.

It was no surprise, then, that President Nixon last week accorded an especially effusive Washington welcome to the man who has pledged that the waterway will remain open to all: Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Aryamehr, Shahanshah of Iran, scion of 2,500 years of Persian power and self-appointed (with U.S. encouragement) policeman of the Persian Gulf. He had two private sessions totaling three hours in the President's Oval Office. Then the Shah, 53, and his stunning third wife, Empress Farah, 34, were feted by the President at a state dinner in the White House (the 115 guests included a gusher of U.S. oil executives), and the Nixons attended a reciprocal dinner at the Iranian embassy. Perhaps most satisfying, though, was the morning the Shah was given with officials of the Defense Department. For more than anything else, he was in Washington to shop for weapons.*

Iran already has an awesome arsenal. Since 1965 it has spent more than $3 billion in the U.S. and Europe on mostly sophisticated arms, including 70 Phantom F-4 jet fighters, 400 tanks, a destroyer, a couple of frigates and what is probably the biggest fleet of Hovercraft (50) in the world. But the Shah, who makes the final decision on all such equipment, wants more. Currently prepared to spend $2 billion or so a year, he has on order 100 F-5E supersonic fighters, another 100 Phantoms, 700 helicopters, 750 tanks, eight destroyers and four frigates. Last week he added to his shopping list the Grumman F14, which is so expensive (at $14.8 million) that even the U.S. Navy has been forced to cut down on its original order.

Extending Influence. The Shah is also spending heavily on military installations. He plans to expand the five-year-old naval and air force base at Bandar Abbas, which overlooks the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the gulf. A new, even bigger base for the two services is planned for Chah Bahar, close to the Pakistan border on the Gulf of Oman, extending Iranian influence into the Indian Ocean. A complex to handle a helicopter force of 10,000 men is to be built at Isfahan, in the interior. In addition, a vast communications network and automated logistics system for the armed forces is under study. "It sounds as though your ambition is for Iran to become the strongest country in the area," a U.S. newsman told the Shah in Washington. "It is not an ambition," the ruler replied with a smile. "It is inevitable."

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