If Iran attacks Kuwait, as many here fear it may, Kuwait will seek help first from Jordan and Egypt - and then, as a last resort, from the United States. This is the consensus among Kuwaiti officials, political scientists, and businessmen here. Kuwaitis are worried that Iran would strike their territory to pressure the Arab Gulf states into halting their aid to Iran's foe, Iraq.
The subject has gained urgency with Sunday's attack on a Kuwaiti tanker in the Persian Gulf - at least the third such attack since April. The vessel was hit, reportedly by Iranian jets, farther south in the Gulf than any other ship has been when hit. This is significant for the US naval vessels escorting ships flying US flags in the southern Gulf. The attack, assuming it was Iranian, shows Iran intends to carry out its threat to expand attacks on shipping.
A Western envoy said that at least one ship had been stopped and searched by an Iranian military ship. Last week Iran declared an ''exclusionary zone'' in the lower Gulf to check Iraq-bound ships for spies, mercenaries, and weapons. Diplomats said this could help Iran tighten the noose on Gulf shipping.
So far it has been taboo in Kuwait to discuss publicly the consequences of an anticipated Iranian air strike or terrorist act in Kuwaiti territory. But people in Kuwait admit that this dominates their private conversations. The Ministry of Information has scheduled a press conference for foreign journalists next weekend with Foreign Minister Sabah Ahmad Jabir Sabah. Ministry officials say that will be the foreign press's first opportunity to ask a Kuwaiti official on the record about the Gulf crisis.
''For the first time, Kuwait is being forced to reevaluate its foreign policy. It has to weigh its nonalignment against its own interest,'' a senior executive with the state-owned Kuwait Petroleum Company said.
Kuwaitis say the US would not be as quick to come to their rescue as it was with the Saudis because Kuwait, unlike Saudi Arabia, maintains formal diplomatic ties with the US and the USSR.
Kuwait's options are either to buckle under to the Iranians or look for outside help, the senior oil executive commented. Iran's threats against and attacks on Kuwaiti tankers have angered Kuwait and, if anything, stiffened resolve to bolster Iraq, said the executive, who also has close ties with the Kuwaiti royal family.
King Hussein of Jordan visited this tiny and nearly indefensible oil state last week. Reports from Jordan said he offered Jordanian military aid if Kuwait were attacked. In return, Jordan at least would receive some of the aid Kuwait had pledged to Jordan but had recently cut back because of declining oil sales and prices, the oil executive said.
If Iran were to launch a crippling air raid on Kuwait - the worst-case scenario - Kuwait would then turn to the US, political scientists at Kuwait University predicted.
''When things go really bad, Kuwait will have to go by what Saudi Arabia says , and the Saudis will choose the Americans,'' said Assad Abul Rahman, a professor of political science at the university.
Businessmen, political scientists, politicians, and officials concur that Kuwait would look to the Soviet Union only for weapons and most likely only for weapons that the US wouldn't provide. One Western diplomat contends that the Soviets are keen to show that they can be more stalwart allies of the Gulf Arab states than the Americans during a crisis. The envoy noted that the Soviet ambasssador to Kuwait had been recently visiting social gatherings and reassuring Kuwaitis that his country would be helpful in the current situation.
But, says Kuwaiti parliamentarian Khaled Sultan, ''We can buy weapons from any direction but we will never permit troops.''
In other developments:
* Iran and Iraq attacked each other's cities Monday hours before a limited, United Nations-mediated cease-fire was scheduled to take effect. Iraq attacked the Iranian city of Dezful in retaliation for Iranian shelling of Basra, military statements from the two sides said.
* Gulf Arab states have decided to compensate buyers for any oil they lose in attacks on oil tankers, a Bahrainian official said Monday.