If they wanted to, steel analysts could rock back on their heels and let slip a phrase that few industry leaders like hearing: ''We told you so.'' Over the last few years, steel industry complaints about imports have hit Washington like the heat of a blast furnace. The government responded with negotiated tariffs and quotas on subsidized Western European steel.
But analysts warned that the hole left by these import reductions would simply be filled by other countries. And, they said, there was always the possibility that the Europeans would retaliate with restrictions of their own on American goods.
Both have happened.
Last Friday, the European Community announced quotas and tariffs on US chemicals and sporting goods equipment. EC officials said the action was taken to compensate for restrictions applied by the United States on European specialty steel last summer.
The European share of US steel imports has dropped - from 32.6 percent in 1981 to 24.4 percent for the first 11 months of 1983. But that slack has been taken up by some of the lesser-developed countries. Total steel imports, moreover, are still close to where they were a year ago. The most recent data available show November steel imports biting off 23.7 percent of the US market, compared with 24 percent in November 1982.
Import restrictions ''have been a big mistake,'' says Charles Bradford, a steel analyst at Merrill Lynch. ''What you've done is taken business from the Europeans and . . . switched to a new relationship with the third world,'' he says.
Steel industry efforts to fight illegal dumping in this country have swung right along with that switch. ''The newly industrialized countries are now receiving attention,'' says Hal Sundstrom, spokesman for the International Trade Commission, which hears the cases brought by US companies against other countries. About 15 steel cases are pending or under final investigation at the commission; these include dumping charges against such countries as South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. Last week nine companies and the United Steelworkers of America accused a Spanish manufacturer of dumping stainless steel in this country at unfair prices.
Bruce Davis, spokesman for Bethlehem Steel, states that import restrictions so far ''have not been effective. . . . The third world has not only filled whatever gap was left, but they've gone well beyond it.''
But he still looks to import cutbacks as the most effective answer to the industry's problems.
''The most important factor is imports,'' he says. The volume of imports is pinning down domestic shipments, Mr. Davis explains, and their ''fire sale'' prices - with differences of $100 to $120 per net ton - have burned up US profit margins. He predicts ''further evidence of a volume and price level problem'' in the industry.
Steel companies want to see enforcement of federal antidumping laws. But beyond that, they support a bill in Congress, HR 4352, that would limit steel imports, by product-type and country, to about 15 percent of the US market for five years.
''Nobody's going to pass that bill,'' says Harald Malmgren, a trade consultant and former trade official in Washington. ''If you go too far in a restrictive approach, then you have retaliation by other countries. Congress is not so protectionist as people believe, but the administration, for political reasons, has become very protectionist.''
Mr. Malmgren thinks the more likely scenario is that Bethlehem Steel will file an ''escape-clause case,'' stating that the level of imports of carbon steel products threatens the livelihood of the company. Bethlehem says it is ''actively considering'' filing such a case.
If Bethlehem does file, and if it were to win, the President would have to take action that would relieve the situation - at a politically critical time.
''If Bethlehem files the case, then the decision would have to made in October, just before the election,'' says Malmgren. ''And in the Electoral College, the President needs one or two industrial states. He'd be forced to give in.''
Malmgren is not one to hail protectionist trade policy, but he does believe the quotas and tariffs placed on the Common Market have benefited domestic steelmakers. ''I think price levels are firmer than they would otherwise have been,'' he says.
He also says the EC decision to retaliate is ''perfectly justified. They are just following the rules.'' The major impact will be on exports of US chemicals, which Malmgren says is another industry suffering from worldwide oversupply. The US still has time to consider the retaliation and try to work out an alternative. Although the third world is the new target for quotas and tariffs, he doubts retaliation could ever occur there. ''They don't have much negotiating leverage. Even though they are big markets for the US, they have big debt problems.''
''There are clearly cases of (imported) steel being sold at below production costs that we need to protect against,'' says John Jacobson, a ferrous-metals economist at Chase Econometrics. ''But I think emphasis on restricting imports is not really the crucial one to making the industry profitable.''
In the long term, he says, trade restrictions support inefficiency and high costs in domestic steel production because they shield American companies from the competition that would whip them into shape. Mr. Jacobson says US companies just need to keep cutting labor costs, modernizing, and consolidating. STEEL IMPORTS TO US CANADA JAPAN EC* OTHER Total 1977: 9.8% 40.5% 35.4% 14.3% 19.3 Million tons Total 1979: 13.4% 36.2% 30.9% 19.5% 17.5 million tons Total 1981: 14.6% 31.3% 32.6% 21.6% 19.9 million tons Total 1983 (except Dec.): 15.4 14.3% 24.4% 21.8% 37.5% million tons * EC -- European community Source: American Iron and Steel Insitute