WASHINGTON -- President Reagan justified the U.S. military strike against Iran Monday as 'a lawful exercise of the right of self-defense' that sent a powerful warning to Tehran amid concern of deepened involvement in the Persian Gulf conflict.
'No, we're not going to have a war with Iran,' Reagan told reporters as he left to visit first lady Nancy Reagan, who is recovering from breast cancer surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital. 'They're not that stupid.'
'We thought it was an appropriate and proportionate response to their missile attack on a freighter that flew our flag,' he said.
Asked if he had any message for Iran's leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he grinned and said: 'If I really gave it to you, you wouldn't be able to print it.'
In a statement issued earlier, Reagan said, 'The United States has no desire for a military confrontation with Iran, but the government of Iran should be under no illusion about our determination and ability to protect our ships and our interests against unprovoked attacks.'
Less than three hours after four U.S. Navy destroyers bombarded an armed Iranian platform with 1,000 rounds from their 5-inch guns, Reagan called the U.S. action 'a prudent yet restrained response' to Iranian hostilities.
The White House and Pentagon were low-key -- almost matter-of-fact - in explaining how and why U.S. warships fired their guns in retaliation for the missile attack Friday on the U.S.-flagged Kuwaiti tanker Sea Isle City.
'We think it's a restrained and measured response that sends the signal that the United States cannot tolerate these kinds of attacks,' said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater.
Reagan emphasized the action came only after consultations with Congress, U.S. allies and 'friendly governments' in the gulf and after 'numerous' warnings to Iran that interference with shipping and American interests would have adverse consequences.
'It is a lawful exercise of the right of self-defense enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter,' he said, 'and is being so notified to the president of the United Nations Security Council.'
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger declared the operation a military success without dwelling on its impact.
'We consider this matter as now closed,' he said. 'We do not seek any further confrontation with Iran, but we will be fully prepared to meet any escalation of military actions by Iran with stronger countermeasures.'
Iran pledged retaliatory action.
Kamal Kharrazi, head of the Iranian War Information Headquarters, said, 'The United States will receive a crushing response for its criminal attack on Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf.'
The official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying, 'The United States has actually got itself involved in a full-fledged war with the Islamic Republic.'
The administration's subdued rhetoric reflected a deliberate effort to minimize the inflammation of tensions in the gulf and fears at home that the United States and Iran are headed down a dangerous collision course.
The initial reaction from Capitol Hill pointed to success on at least the latter point. Members of both parties expressed support for the action as one that struck a balance between military and political aims.
'From what I have heard, the response is correct and justified to the active, international banditry conducted by Iran,' said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, D-R.I. 'At the same time, it shows the danger the United States faces in the gulf is likely to increase.'
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dante Fascell, D-Fla., called the attack 'a measured and restrained action' and said, 'There is no question the United States must support its interests in the gulf.'
Seeking to not anger Congress, top leaders of the House and Senate were summoned to the White House Sunday evening to be briefed on the operation. Fitzwater characterized their reaction as 'supportive and positive.'
However, the use of U.S. firepower only intensified the debate over Reagan's refusal to invoke the 1973 War Powers Resolution, which requires congressional approval for American military deployments beyond 90 days in areas of 'imminent hostilities.'
The administration position on that issue shifted some Monday from a tactical argument that conditions in the gulf had not reached the point of 'iminent hostilities' needed to trigger the statute to a challenge of its validity -- the same argument Reagan was said to have advanced during his Sunday evening meeting with congressional leaders.
White House lobbyist Will Ball said the events of the last few days may prompt lawmakers 'to concentrate their attention on how to amend the law or reshape it.'
The White House has questioned the constitutionality of the law in asserting the president cannot have his authority as commander in chief constrained by Congress. To help avert a direct constitutional showdown, the White House said Reagan would report to Congress within 48 hours on Monday's attack, 'consistent with' -- but not in actual compliance with - the War Powers Resolution.
Some Democrats said that would not suffice in the face of added hostilities.
'The administration may consider the matter closed,' said Sen. Dale Bumpers, D-Ark., 'but Iran will not.'
Fitzwater said Reagan approved the operation Saturday as the most appropriate 'restrained, proportionate and measured' means of retaliation for the strike one day earlier against the Sea Isle City, injuring 18 of its crew members.
In the immediate aftermath of that attack, the first against any of the 11 Kuwaiti tankers transiting the gulf under the protection of American flags, some administration officials hinted the United States might forgo retaliation because the tanker was in Kuwaiti waters and not under U.S. escort at the time.
Under international law, the defense of those waters is considered a Kuwaiti responsibility. Brushing aside such legal questions, Weinberger said of the attack on the Sea Isle City: 'It took place on a U.S.-flag vessel and was a deliberate attempt to destroy shipping engaged in commerce. The fact that it was inside or outside an actual line doesn't excuse it.'
At the same time, the destruction of the inactive oil drilling facility, from which the Iranians have staged speeed boat raids on tankers and fired at U.S. helicopters, also fell short of the military punishment Reagan could have ordered.
Speculation on possible reprisals included consideration of an air strike against the launch site of the Chinese-made Silkworm missiles that last week struck the Sea Isle City and the U.S.-owned and Liberian-flagged Sungari.
A raid against the Silkworm batteries would have required U.S. warplanes to fly the length of the gulf. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger also noted that with the Silkworms on mobile launchers, there were no guarantees the missiles would have been there once the Americans arrived.
Administration officials said the decision to hit the oil platform, a less important military target, with sufficient advance notice that its crew members were able to flee by the time the shelling began, was driven by a desire to meet a need for retaliation and send a strong signal of American resolve while minimizing any escalation of the conflict in the gulf.
It marked the third engagement between U.S. and Iranian forces since Sept. 21, when Army helicopter gunships crippled a mine-laying ship, the Iran Ajr, killing at least two Iranians and wounding four others. Similar gunships sank an Iranian patrol boat and virtually destroyed two others Oct. 8.