For the first time since the United States and other NATO nations boosted their military role in the Gulf, Iran appears ready to recognize that the West has a role to play there. ``When the US Navy used the pretext of protecting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers to enter the Persian Gulf in force, we thought they would try to prevent us from winning the war against Iraq,'' said a source close to Prime Minister Hossein Musavi contacted in Tehran.
``Now we do have the impression that the Americans and their Western allies want to be in the Gulf to protect Arab monarchies on its southern shore the day the Iraqi regime will fall down. We are ready to accept this.''
In public, Tehran is issuing bellicose rhetoric over the US attack Monday on an Iranian oil platform. But in private, many Iranians admit the US showed restraint - albeit as a sign of weakness rather than of good will on the part of the Reagan administration. These views were revealed in interviews with Iranian officials, Western diplomats in Tehran, and other sources.
One Iranian official even conceded that ``hitting back was a matter of national honor for the Americans'' after Iran attacked a US-flagged Kuwaiti tanker last Friday.
Many Iranians say the US was ``mild'' (read: weak) in its response because it is frightened at the prospect of being sucked into the Gulf war and is thus eager to avoid any new escalation.
Hence, Iranian leaders' tough verbal reaction is aimed at maintaining intense psychological pressure on President Reagan and US congressmen. The Iranian leadership also wants to convince them that they have only two options: be pulled into a full-scale war with Iran or acknowledge once and for all Iran's right to continue its war against Iraq.
But within the second option there does seem to be room for diplomacy.
``If the US and its Western allies accept some changes in the UN resolution that calls for a cease-fire we would be ready to cooperate,'' said the source close to the prime minister. ``We don't ask that much: We just want the investigation on who started the war to be performed before the cease-fire takes place.''
A few hours before the US attacked the Iranian oil platform, President Ali Khamenei told the daily Tehran Times that his country would be ready for a cease-fire provided the UN brands Iraq as the aggressor and punishes it.
Iran's Supreme Defense Council, the nation's highest decisionmaking body in the war, believes that in spite of overwhelming US superiority in military hardware, Iran is still in a position of force in the Gulf, according to Western diplomats contacted in Tehran. This analysis is based on the fact that the Iranians think there are actually few important strategic targets within the range of US forces deployed in the Gulf.
``We have a large strategic depth,'' an Iranian diplomat in Brussels said. ``Most of our cities and industrial centers are in the northern part of Iran. Our missile launching pads are mobile and thus difficult to destroy. Our oil terminal on Kharg Island is heavily defended and if it were to be razed we would export our oil through the Soviet Union.''
In the coming days Iran's leaders will thoroughly review the situation in the Gulf and decide on their next move, according to an Iranian journalist contacted in Tehran. This was later confirmed by President Khamenei, who said, ``after each military operation we want to give a chance to our enemy to make up his mind.''
A Western diplomat sees this statement as an indication that Iran doesn't intend to embark on a counterstrike against American targets in the Gulf in the coming days.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.