An escalation in the Gulf war has apparently strengthened Iranian national unity and the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. ''If the Arabs believe they'll put Iran on its knees they're wrong,'' said a leading opponent to the Islamic regime last week in Paris. ''They're just reinforcing the regime.''
Although the Ayatollah calls the war a fight between Islam and atheism, many Iranians see it as a revival of the ancient Persian-Arab rivalry.
In Tehran, recent newspaper headlines tell of the war's escalation. Editorialists write that the latest crisis is a tough challenge to the Islamic republic. But they are all confident the country will overcome what they call a ''plot.''
Indeed, Iranian officials say the Iraqis had the approval of moderate Gulf nations - namely Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia - when Iraq decided late in March to use its French-made Super Etendard aircrafts to attack oil tankers.
The aim of this ''maneuver,'' Iranian newspapers say, is to internationalize the conflict by forcing Western countries to intervene.
Iranian threats to disrupt Arab oil exports from the Gulf failed to deter the Iraqis from striking at ships in Iranian waters. On Saturday, the Iraqis sank a Panamanian bulk carrier near the Iranian port of Bushehr. Iraqi pilots reportedly also fired at and missed a Spanish tanker in Iranian waters.
Exiled Iranians of varied opinions cheered reports from Washington that the Iranian Air Force had attacked three foreign tankers - two from Kuwait and one from Saudi Arabia - last week. Even if they disagree on Iran's strategies in the 31/2-year war, Iranians in exile have reacted emotionally to the latest crisis. They say they are proud to see the defense of the country's interests resting on the shoulders of what is left of the American-supplied Air Force under the Shah.
''We never attacked any tanker in the Gulf,'' a source close to the Iranian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday, contradicting American reports that Iran had hit three tankers.
''The Iraqis and their allies,'' the source continued, ''are the cause for the insecurity in the Gulf. We will protect freedom of navigation in the Gulf but if the British, the Americans, or the French stage a military intervention we'll set the whole region ablaze.''
On Friday, insurers at Lloyd's of London reported a total freeze in freight orders for Kharg Island that could bring Iranian oil exports to a standstill. But Iranian sources contacted in Tehran say loading operations are going on as usual on Iran's Kharg Island.
Most tankers loading oil at Kharg Island are now insured by the Iranian National Insurance Company, say these sources, and that the National Iranian Oil Company was in no way short of orders.
But during his Friday prayer sermon, the speaker of the parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, said that repeated Iraqi attacks on tankers near Kharg Island might seriously disrupt Iranian oil exports.
Mr. Rafsanjani also asked ''all those who throughout the world believe in Islam'' to help Iran. This suggests that if its oil exports are cut, Iran might use various Islamic fundamentalist groups throughout the Mideast to carry out terrorists attacks, especially against French and American interests.
In the aftermath of the terrorist bombing of their Beirut military headquarters last fall, the French and United States governments have accused Iran of supporting international terrorism. While Iran repeatedly denies these allegations, the press in Tehran often describes these attacks as ''examples of efficient answers to world imperialism.''
Despite harsh rhetoric by Iran and Iraq, a senior Arab diplomat contacted in Paris on Sunday says both sides may continue to harass Gulf oil tankers for a couple of weeks.
Western oil executives confirmed on Friday that some ship owners are still willing to take Iranian and Kuwaiti oil.
''Shipping rates are slack and lots of tanker owners are desperately trying to have their ships freighted,'' explained an experienced oil trader. ''For them the temptation is great to go to the north of the Gulf'' with low insurance rates provided by Kuwait or Iran.
At an Arab League meeting in Tunis over the weekend Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said the escalation in the Iran-Iraq war had made it no longer possible for Arab countries to remain spectators of the conflict. The Arab foreign ministers passed a resolution condemning Iran for its alleged attacks on Arab tankers, but failed to agree on any concrete countermeasures.
Arab diplomats say the conflict may have reached a new stalemate with neither side able to paralyze oil traffic in the north of the Gulf.Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.