Iran is cornered in the Persian Gulf, and its leaders are divided over how to handle the situation. The United States' attack last Friday on three Iranian speedboats has left the 11 members of the Supreme Defense Council, Iran's top decisionmaking body on the war, with two options:
Strike back and take the risk of being clearly overpowered by US forces.
Acknowledge once and for all the US Navy's supremacy in the Gulf.
Since the 1979 revolution, Iran's response to such dilemmas has often been hard to predict, Western observers in Tehran say. Iranian leaders have either reacted cautiously, trusting their often accurate perception of the balance of forces in a given conflict, or else they have blindly applied their Shiite Islamic principles, which prescribe them to fight on even when they are aware that the battle may be lost before being waged.
This wavering is reflected in the statements made by Iranian officials in the hours that followed last Friday's incident. An Iranian diplomat in Bonn said his country now considers itself at war with the US and feels free to retaliate. But he refrained from saying when and where Iranian forces will counterattack. This diplomat also contended that the rise of tension in the Gulf will reinforce what he called a strategic consensus between Iran and the Soviet Union on Gulf security.
The Soviet Union and Iran have repeatedly asked navies from nations not bordering the Gulf to stay away. On Sunday, the Soviet news agency Tass called the US attitude in the Gulf ``reckless.''
Several European diplomats in Brussels voiced concern at seeing Iran's leaders cornered and tempted to ask Moscow to come to their rescue. But the diplomats disagreed on whether the Iranian threats to escalate the conflict are an exercise of rhetoric or should be taken seriously.
The diplomats are also getting conflicting advice from their allies in the region. Diplomats from Islamic countries enjoying good relations with Iran had this reminder for their European counterparts: In the year 680, one of the founders of Shiism, Imam Hussein, and a handful of his supporters didn't hesitate to fight against and were slaughtered by the powerful armies of a Sunni caliph, Yazid.
``Ever since, the Shiites have been fascinated by the idea of dying in martyr for whatever they see as their just cause,'' a Pakistani envoy said.
Saudi diplomats disagree. They insist that the Iranians always cave in when confronted with a military force they can't match. To back their assessment, the Saudis say that Iranian leaders did not respond when the Saudi Air Force shot down two Iranian fighter jets in 1984 because they were well aware of Saudi superiority in the air.
The Iranians have had intense behind-the-scene discussions on how they should respond to the increased Western military presence in the Gulf and to the Iraq's repeated air raids on Iranian oil facilities, according to reports from Tehran. Those within the Supreme Defense Council advocating restraint keep explaining to their colleagues that internationalizing the war would be in Iraq's interests and that, by doing so, Iran would fall into a trap set by the US and its Arab allies.
But Western observers in Tehran say the influence of the moderates is vanishing, and hard-liners, led by the commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards, are about to win the argument.
Supporters of a military response argue that Iran has no alternative but to hit back brutally. They say the Iraqis are now confident that Iran can no longer afford to retaliate against US-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers and will step up their raids on Iranian oil facilities, eventually bringing a sharp drop in Iran's income.
``We can't accept this because this is the first step toward the asphyxiation of our economy,'' said an aide to Prime Minister Hossein Musavi in a phone interview. The aide is known for favoring a tough response to US attacks on Iranian vessels. ``But the US is trying to provoke us and force us to react now. We will strike back. But at a time we will choose in order to catch them by surprise.''
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.