The Reagan administration's apparent delay in fully carrying out its plan to protect Kuwaiti tankers sailing in the Persian Gulf has been greeted in Tehran as yet another victory for the Islamic revolution. ``This is a sign that our firmness is paying off,'' said a jubilant senior Iranian official contacted Friday. ``We stick to our position: As long as the Iraqis attack tankers loading oil from our own terminals, we will retaliate by striking at merchant ships entering or leaving other Gulf countries' ports, be they flying Soviet, American, or any other flag. Neither US naval nor US air escort will deter us from firing at Kuwaiti tankers using the US flag.''
While some Western diplomats in Tehran say Iran's threat is merely rhetoric for domestic consumption, most believe the regime has good reasons to carry out that threat. Some leaders, observers say, are even eager to force a limited confrontation in the Gulf to prove to Iranians that America remains ``the great Satan.''
But an Iranian diplomat in Tehran explains the situation in more direct, strategic terms: ``Our interest is to keep the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz open to everyone, because, after all, we need the Gulf to export our own oil,'' he says. ``We're thus opposed to any spillover of our war with Iraq in the Gulf waters. But you have to realize that our only way to try to deter the Iraqi Air Force from harassing tankers loading oil at our terminals is to disrupt shipping in the vicinity of Iraq's Arab allies' ports. We presently focus on Kuwait because it's Iraq's closest ally in the region.''
An Iranian journalist in London asserts that the decision of the United States and the Soviet Union to protect Kuwaiti ships has left Iran with no alternative but to be adamant. ``This decision's aim is to deter us from attacking shipping in the vicinity of Kuwait,'' he says.
``If we bow to this,'' he says, ``other Arab Gulf countries will put their fleet under US and Soviet flags, and in the long run, the Iraqis will feel free to launch devastating air raids against our oil loading facilities, knowing of our being unable to retaliate because of ... US and Soviet naval escorts around shipping in the Gulf.
`` For us it's a question of survival. The international community should realize that the Gulf will either be safe for everyone or for no one.''
The Iranian diplomat suggests that Iran would respond appropriately if the situation changed. ``If the Iraqis stopped their attacks against tankers loading oil at Kharg Island, Iranian retaliatory raids would stop immediately.''
``But thus far this has failed to happen,'' he adds. ``Since the [US frigate] Stark was attacked, at least one tanker loading at the island was damaged by an Iraqi missile.''
Western diplomats in Tehran say the Iranians have other good reasons to be tough on the Gulf issue:
Anti-Americanism remains the cornerstone of Iran's foreign policy, and some Iranian leaders could do with an opportunity to restore their anti-American credentials. The heavy news coverage of the secret talks and arms deals between US and Iranian officials put those leaders in an uncomfortable position.
The speaker of Iran's parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, for example, has been on the defensive in recent weeks, according to foreign diplomats. If Iran were to have a confrontation with the US in the Gulf, Mr. Rafsanjani would probably like to appear as the man in charge of Iran's political and military strategy.
Iranian President Ali Khamenei had repeatedly promised the Iranian people that the war would be over before the end of last winter, and he needs some justification for the regime's failure to keep its promise. He now says Iraq has managed to resist Iran because the Soviets and US have joined forces to back the enemy.
A senior European diplomat who regularly travels in the area says: ``A flare-up in the Gulf would, of course, be used by Mr. Khamenei to convince his audiences that his analysis on the war was correct.''
But does the Iranian Army have the muscle to back the leadership's harsh rhetoric and carry out attacks gainst Kuwaiti ships under US protection?
In Gulf waters as on the battlefield, say military attach'es in Tehran, the Iranians compensate for their lack of sophisticated weaponry by an often-incredible courage. In addition, Iran's Revolutionary Guards - apart from the regular Navy - have been building a small but efficient naval task force. And Guards volunteers are being trained to carry out ``suicide'' air or naval attacks against US and Soviet forces, an Iranian source says.
Revolutionary Guards are said to approach tankers or bulk carriers with light patrol boats and strafe the vessels with classic machine-gun fire, or use shoulder-fired antitank weapons.
The Iranians have carried out most attacks against shipping with F-4 Phantom jets equipped with US-made Maverick missiles. The Maverick is somwhat outdated and can be fired only in daylight and clear weather. More recently, the Iranians have used gunboats and helicopters fitted with French-made light AS-12 missiles to raid ships. Earlier this year, Iran placed Chinese-made Silkworm missiles along the Strait of Hormuz and on Iraq's Faw Peninsula, which it has held for over a year. Kuwait says Iran has also dropped sea mines off the Kuwaiti coast.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.