Iraq has taken a step toward raising the stakes in the Gulf war, in apparent hopes of prompting an international oil crisis that will force Iran to the negotiating table.
Specifically, Iraq announced Monday that its planes had bombed tanker berths at Iran's main oil terminal - Kharg Island - and that this marked the start of a ''blockade'' of the facility.
The announced attack - like so much in the Gulf war - could not immediately be confirmed from the scene. But the Iraqi announcement came against the background of repeated Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, one of the West's main oil-shipping lanes, if its own oil exports were disrupted.
As such, the Iraqi statement itself was seen by Mideast analysts as an escalation by Baghdad. The presumed purpose was in effect to dare the Iranians to make good on their threats to close the 25-mile Strait of Hormuz - a move that the United States has vowed to prevent.
In this way, the war-weary Baghdad regime seems to calculate, the international community may somehow be prompted to accomplish an aim that has so far eluded it: to bring Ayatollah Khomeini's government to the conference table.
Still, Monday's move by Baghdad raised as many questions as it answered.
Outside military experts - who have long expected an effort by Baghdad to disrupt or disable the Kharg Island facility - are divided on whether the Iraqis can do so. And some experts doubt whether Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz, through which about one-sixth of the noncommunist world's oil passes.
Many experts feel a half-way scenario on each side is the most credible. That is, Iraq might try to destroy tankers at Kharg and thus in effect ''blockade'' the facility. The Iranians, similarly, might move to block the Gulf's outlet by attacking tankers there, even if escorted by US or other outside ships.
Of the Iranians' verbal determination, there can be no doubt. Ayatollah Khomeini, in a statement late last year, said: ''I warn all the states in the region, as well as countries which make use of oil in some way, that the government of Iran, exerting its utmost power, will oppose this (threatened) aggression (against Iranian oil facilities) and is determined to block the Strait of Hormuz, thus obstructing the passage of even a single drop of petroleum from there.''
The speaker of Iran's parliament went further, saying that if the strait were closed, no outside power, not even in ''a third world war,'' would be able to reopen it. Later, Iran's defense minister repeated the threat to close the Strait. He declined to specify how, saying only: ''The method is very simple, and very practical.''
The Iraqi announcement Monday came as the Gulf war was well into its fourth murderous yet inconclusive year. Iran earlier this month launched its latest ground offensive, apparently making some advances but not yet radically altering the parameters of a conflict that has increasingly come to look like a stalemate.
But the Iranians - thanks in major part to shipments out of Kharg Island - have economically weathered the war far better than the Iraqis have. Iraq has made clear for many months now its desire for a negotiated exit. Iran has in effect said that, especially since Iraq started the war, no talks are possible until Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is toppled.
Almost all of the world community - including, oddly, both the Americans and Soviets - have signaled support for Iraqi moves to negotiate.
Yet none of this has made any visible difference to Iran. And with world oil supplies high and prices low, even Iraq's previously unfulfilled threat to escalate the conflict has not had the international effect it might have had a decade or so ago.