Kuwait City — Kuwait is feeling particularly vulnerable these days. Officials and diplomats in this oil sheikhdom fear a further escalation in the nearby Iran-Iraq war may come in the form of an Iranian air strike on Kuwait or on neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait, they speculate, will be the next target.
After the Saudi downing of two Iranian jet fighters Tuesday, analysts here say it is even more likely that Kuwait would be the target for Iran. Until the shootdown, the assumption here and in Saudi Arabia was that the Saudis had the capability to defend themselves but might be reluctant to use it.
''It was a shrewd gamble by the Saudis that probably worked,'' a Western diplomat said. Diplomats were surprised that Iran risked losing aircraft, given its short supply.
Diplomats expect Iran to shy away from further tangles with the Saudis now that they have proved tougher than Iran perhaps expected and that American willingness to intervene on Saudi Arabia's behalf is clear. The pilots who shot down the Iranians had help from American tanker planes and surveillance planes.
According to reports, the Saudis downed the two Iranian jets as they prepared to attack two ships near Al Arabiyah island in the Persian Gulf. The Iranian jets had likely flown from the Iranian port of Bushehr.
Before the incident, both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had focused on negotiation rather than confrontation. Both nations had wanted to avoid doing anything that Iran could construe as a provocative act.
Analysts here say the Iranians bombed Kuwaiti and Saudi oil tankers last month to scare them into halting their support of Iraq. Diplomats say Iran's attacks may have had the opposite effect. Both countries have given Iraq millions of dollars to fight Iran, while claiming a measure of neutrality and trying to mediate. Kuwait has allowed weapons destined for Iraq to be unloaded and shipped overland.
But analysts point out that a frustrated Iran could be very dangerous. A Western diplomat says Iran has three options:
* Launch the long-awaited ground offensive, trying to take the key Iraqi port of Basra and crossing the Shatt al Arab waterway. Military analysts say such a move would be suicidal.
* Attack oil vessels in the lower region of the Gulf, where defense capabilities are not so good.
* Attack Kuwaiti power plants and desalination stations, if Iraq carries out its threat to put Iran's main oil terminal at Kharg Island out of business. This choice is considered the most probable. By doing this, Iran would hope to scare the Arabs into backing away from Iraq, Kuwaiti officials and foreign diplomats say.
Kuwait has three power stations that provide the energy to drive the water desalination plants. Although water is plentiful and could be rationed on a short-term basis, putting a power plant out of action would frighten the Kuwaitis greatly.
Neither the Kuwaitis nor the diplomats based here could foresee the United States going to bat for Kuwait as it has for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait has prided itself on its position as a nonaligned country and on its healthy relations with the Soviets. The US views the Saudis as far more moderate on such issues as oil and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
If Iran didn't want to risk such a major escalation of the war by bombing a third country, it could support or encourage terrorist action, diplomats say. Kuwait holds Iran responsible for the multiple bombings here last December, which included attacks on the American Embassy and Kuwaiti government buildings.
The newspaper Al-Anbaa reported rumors Wednesday that the police had arrested an unreported number of people for placing explosives in government buildings. Since the December bombings, the Kuwaitis have reportedly deported some 1,000 to 3,000 people in an attempt to prevent further incidents.
''The Kuwaitis are reasonably confident that they have the internal situation under control, but obviously it can't be ruled totally out,'' one envoy said.
Iran has bombed Kuwait before, which vividly brought home to the Kuwaitis just how vulnerable they were. In 1981 the Iranians destroyed an oil-gathering station near the Kuwaiti-Iraqi border. Although security measures have been stepped up, diplomats and Kuwaitis realize that it would still be easy to cripple the country with a well-placed bombing raid on either the power or desalination plants.
Diplomats said the nation's antiaircraft defenses are poor around the plants, especially when low-flying aircraft approach. It would be for just such an attack that Kuwait would like to have the US Stinger missiles the Saudis now have.