Behind Iran's smokescreen of official unconcern lies a guarded tale of chicken and computer parts -- a story that suggests that American economic sanctions will hurt this country after all.
An Iranian industrial expert has confided that a threatened shortage of computer spares -- which, since the takeover of the US Embassy, have been procured from the Paris subsidiary of an American corporation -- could eventually raise difficulties here.
Among those likely to be hurt: the Iranian oil industry and the banking sector. Distribution of electricity may be complicated as well.
Iranian commercial sources say the government also appeared to be making plans to stockpile food, including an anticipated deal for some 360,000 tons of chicken.
Both Iranian analysts and Western diplomats still maintain President Carter's virtual trade embargo will not cause Iran critical difficulties -- unless expended and energetically joined by US allies, or perhaps supplemented by an American blockade of the Gulf.
Even such intensified sanctions, diplomts add, would not necessarily prod Iran to release the US Embassy hostages. "Such a campaign could conceivably force a toughened Iranian stand instead," one diplomat suggested.
"The situation, to say the least, is unpredictable."
But one week after the US hiked economic pressure on Iran, private comments by Tehran officials and businessmen reflect deep concern that even the current sanctions may cause greater difficulties than originally anticipated or openly admitted.
Top Iranian officials, in effect urging European ambassadors not to join the US pressure move, on the other hand have argued to the envoys that the sanctions won't hurt anyway.
But a senior Commerce Ministry official -- while echoing the government's line that the current sanctions actually are a cause for joy and a boost for "independence" -- has told Iranian friends the country could face serious trouble if the United States decides to blockade the Gulf.
Such a move, diplomats have suggested, could curtail a lively smuggling trade that seems bound to dilute the effects of sanctions.
It was against this background of private concern that one Iranian expert confided Tehran had been dodging what had amounted to an unofficial American embargo since the embassy capture by "securing computer parts through the Paris subsidiary" of an American firm.
Pointing out that computers are used widely in Iran's "oil industry, banking, and distribution of electricity," the Iranian expressed concern over how the country would now get needed components.
He said the French connection had been severed since Washington's announcement of sanctions, and he worried out loud that other American subsidiaries peddling other products might follow suit.
He said Iran had not yet found an alternative, non-American source for the specialized computer parts, and suggested this explains a reported appeal from Iran's National Commission on Information Systems that computer use be curtailed wherever possible.
Meanwhile, an evident concern over food supply has spilled into the open with the announcement that travelers leaving Iran will no longer be able to carry out edible items. This, said the official Iranian news agency forthrightly, was to "obviate the possiblity of a food shortage at home."
Yet there also appeared to be further, unannounced efforts on this front.
Iranian commercial sources say the government is trying to conclude a deal to import some $44.5 million worth of chicken -- 300,000 tons of it frozen and an additional 60,000 tons of live baby chicks.
One snag, the sources said, was a shortage of refrigeration trucks to get the consignment from the Iranian frontier to Tehran.
Iranian officials are quick to stress that no one is likely to starve from American sanctions, despite President Carter's announcement that food exports to Iran will be either minimal or nonexistent.
Many Western diplomats agree, pointing to good recent harvests in Iran and suspecting that Tehran can always turn to the Soviet Union, which presumably would allow Soviet citizens to go hungry before missing an opportunity to fill a US trade vacuum.
But President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr has made it clear he does not want Iran's "independence" from the Americans to breed closer relations with a not notably pro- Islamic Kremlin.
Iran imports about $2 billion of food annually and has traditionally bought much of it from the United States.
Diplomats suggest the Iranians now will seek expanded shipments from other noncommunist sources, meanwhile bargaining for US products through third parties.