WELL-PLACED officials in Washington see a sinister scenario developing in United States relations with Iran. They do not fear an all-out military confrontation between the two countries. They rate that as unlikely.
What they do think is probable is the orchestration by Iran of a series of terrorist incidents and ``gray area'' military operations on a small but provocative basis. One example of such ``gray area'' operations is the blowing up, or damaging, of US warships in Gulf ports by Iranian frogmen. It is the kind of operation in which suspicion would fall heavily on Iran, but proof might be hard to come by.
One key official suggests picturing a situation, for instance, in which the National Security Council has been summoned to assess the latest ``outrage'' against the United States: ``[Secretary of State George] Shultz says, `The Iranians did it.' Reagan says, `Give me the proof and we'll react.' Nobody can come up with the proof, but everybody is convinced the Iranians did it. There's indecision and procrastination. If the President does nothing, we look impotent in the Arab world in the face of Iranian aggression. If he strikes out at Iran without proof of Iran's perfidy, the world gets bent out of shape.''
Another complication for Washington is its lack of information about the internal Iranian power structure. There is clearly jousting for power against the time when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini passes from the scene. Particularly troubling are the Revolutionary Guards. Nobody can be sure what role they play and how provocative they might be, even though traditional military forces in Iran may be more reluctant to taunt the US.
Also, the guards, in concert with extremist Iranian factions, may well pursue inflammatory acts of terrorism, even as a variety of proposals are floated to bring an end to the Iran-Iraq war, or at least some kind of truce to the shipping war in the Gulf.
There has been the laying of anti-ship mines in the Gulf near Kuwait, along with provocative maneuvers in the Gulf by small Iranian powerboats. There is also a question of whether the much-publicized Silkworm missiles, when they become operational, will be under the control of the Revolutionary Guards.
So whatever the outlook for diplomacy, and however remote the prospect of a full-scale US-Iran war, the hazardous activities of uncontrollable Iranian elements remain of prime concern to the US.
If all this seems confusing to Congress and the American people, there should be no confusion about the goals of the US in particular, and the West in general, as far as the Gulf is concerned. They are:
To keep the Gulf open to shipping.
To keep the Soviets from extending their presence and influence in the Gulf.
To ensure that Iran does not win the war.
Some critics of the administration argue that the US has no business assuming the dangerous chore of escorting oil tankers through the Gulf. They ask: Where are the British, the French, the Germans, the Japanese, all of whom use more Gulf oil than does the US? Of course, the British and French are already there, and the Germans and the Japanese have no suitable navies to deploy. Still, it would probably be fitting if the Japanese made some financial contribution toward protection of their oil supplies.
It would be pleasant if there were a neat grouping of nations to coordinate Gulf escort activity. But great powers like the US have to act like great powers. Protecting the world's oil supply is surely a responsibility that a great power ought to assume. If that means committing more ships and men than any other nation, it is one of the costs of being a great power.