The United States has made it clear that it is sympathetic to Kuwait's efforts to safeguard Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf, and that the ships even may be allowed to fly the U.S. flag.
But sources here indicate that the next step on the touchy political issue, a byproduct of the Iran-Iraq war, is up to the Kuwaitis.The matter has been the subject of discussions between the United States and Kuwait for months. Apparently, Kuwait's use of Soviet tankers ended, or helped end, any U.S. State Department reluctance on the U.S.-flag question.
Officials refused to discuss the matter for attribution, but sources indicated that the United States is now willing to look favorably on the shift of Kuwait tankers to the U.S. flag for the protection that may provide.
Kuwait had hoped to obtain protection from U.S. naval forces in the area.
The Coast Guard confirmed that there had been a meeting with owners' representatives on the possibility of shifting several Kuwaiti tankers to the U.S. flag.
The matter was being treated as a routine request, officials said.
The number of tankers potentially involved was not disclosed.
U.S.-flag tankers are warned to avoid that area because of the war, which has led to attacks on merchant shipping. When U.S. operators have to enter the general area of the Persian Gulf, they are supposed to notify the U.S. Navy.
Details were not readily available, but it was reported that the U.S.-flag tanker Manhattan did enter that area within the past year and that it apparently did enjoy a degree of close support from Navy units.
Sources said the United States was particularly inclined to go along with Kuwait's somewhat unusual approach and that the requirements of U.S. shipping law had been explained to Kuwaiti representatives.
Under one such requirement, all officers on U.S.-flag ships must be U.S. citizens, and 75 percent of their crews also must be U.S. citizens.
A ship flying the U.S. flag also would have to meet U.S. requirements governing safety, pollution control and crew size.
Virtually all ships built anywhere are constructed to meet international standards. U.S. requirements have been more demanding in the past, but in recent years, especially for tankers, the differences have narrowed.
There is also the matter of the membership of such crews in U.S. maritime unions. As U.S.-flag ships they would be subject to U.S. labor laws.
Two Kuwaiti newspapers reported Thursday that the Kuwait government has approached China, Britain, France and the Soviet Union as well as the United States for help in protecting its tankers from Iranian attack. The five countries are the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
The disclosure was made in editorials in the Al-Qabas and Al-Anbaa dailies after Foreign Minister Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmed briefed the chief editors of Kuwaiti newspapers.
Although the United States and Soviet Union have responded positively to the Kuwaiti requests to charter or re-register part or all of the 21-ship Kuwaiti tanker fleet, there was no indication of what response was made by China, Britain and France.
With the exception of China, all these countries have warships in the gulf region.
The Kuwaiti government admitted Saturday it was discussing such moves with "friendly countries . . . for economic and security reasons" to seek protection for their oil shipments through the gulf against escalating Iranian threats.
Iran, retaliating for Iraqi attacks on its own tankers, has singled out Kuwaiti vessels or foreign ships sailing to and from the emirate, which Tehran accuses of supporting Iraq in the six-and-a-half year old gulf war.
The Kuwaitis believe that tankers flying the U.S. and Soviet flags would be immune from Iranian attack and guaranteed protection from the U.S. and Soviet warships patroling the gulf.