AT LEAST one lesson emerges from this summer of Iran-contra hearings and military maneuverings in the Persian Gulf: the United States still has no clear understanding of the internal realities of Iran under the Ayatollah Kohmeini and what they imply for American policy in the region.

Now that our policy has drifted from one of naive solicitation to one of bombastic confrontation, an appraisal of current realities in Iran and what they portend for the region and the world is of ever greater significance.

The clerical government in Iran has consolidated its power thoroughly throughout the country in a number of ways, as even many of the clerics' most strident foes concede. Consolidation has been achieved in part by exploiting nationalism after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and by rallying the country against the Iraqi invasion in 1980. It has been achieved by increased rural electrification and phone service between local clerics and Tehran, facilitating control and the spread of propaganda. And certainly it has been achieved through brutal repression, both of the general populace and of dissenting clerics. Many people have been killed or driven abroad.

Although the war is a risky business in terms of popularity, Iran's high birth rate provides a large cadre of youth who, indoctrinated from early on, will be true believers and avid supporters of a clerical government. Additionally, various economic incentives provided to servicemen and their families, not to mention the spiritual inducements of hero and martyrdom status, have helped muffle opposition to the war.

An armed opposition, the largely communist Mojahedin, exists but has so far not been a significant threat. And while many emigres will say that corruption is greater now than under the Shah, that economic problems are far worse and that political rights are non-existent, the clerics' tighter control of the country, especially in the rural areas, makes a repeat of the 1979 revolution improbable.

Khomeini is an implacable, stubborn man with nerves of steel. Not economically greedy, he nevertheless has goals from which he will not back down. In 1963 for example, he spoke out openly against the Shah, at a time when no one else dared do so. He was jailed but still refused to curb his tongue, so he was exiled to Iraq. In 1975, Khomeini was deported from Iraq to France as part of an agreement on territorial and political concessions that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein negotiated with the Shah.

From these long years of struggle, Khomeini has carried three major hatreds: of the Shah, whom he regarded as a corrupt enemy of Islam; of the United States, which he holds guilty of exploiting Iran under the Shah;; and Saddam Hussein, who invaded Iran to topple its Islamic government.

In light of all of this, any thought of direct negotiations with the United States or a settlement with Iraq that left its pre-war territory intact are pitifully naiive ideas. Scenarios based on concessions by Khomeini are equally naive; he will never abandon his goals of kicking the United States out of the region and achieving revenge over the present Iraqi regime.

Even the overthrow of Saddam would not in itself satisfy the Ayatollah; a more likely goal would include political control of Iraq, along with territorial concessions. In the broader realm of the Middle East, he is concerned with the spread of his vision of Islam, both for reasons of religious conviction and for political and revolutionary imperatives. The United States can do nothing to change that.

Little reason exists to hope for a less radical Iran in the near future. After the death of Khomeini,the surviving mullahs may find it difficult to swing very far fom his deeply implanted revolutionary policies. Of the various clerical factions, it is safe to predict that any successor would -- as a matter of domestic pragmatism -- remain faithful to the ideals sown by the charismatic Khomneini. The leftist Mojahedin, in the unlikely event that they gained total power, would be no more friendly to western interests and might very likely be even more brutal than the clerics.

Whoever is in power after Khomeini will face severe problems. Iran faces enormous economic difficulties -- a total lack of credit on world markets, an oil industry ravaged by mismanagement and the Gulf war, and factory output that stands at a fraction of what it was under the Shah. Politically, Khurdish insurgents continue attacks in their decades-old fight for independence; similar turmoil is on the rise in in Baluchistan, and 1 1/2 to 2 million Afghani refugees have flooded into Iran, some of whom it can be assumed are Soviet agents.

But along with all the problems, Khomeini will leave legacies of strengh. The first is the ideological makeup of the populace. Many people have been killed in the war, left the country or been the victims of political repression. But one statistic rings out as crucial: 45 percent of all Iranians are now under 16 years old -- an ideologically malleable group that assures the revolution a near majority of devout followers into the long-term future.

The second legacy is fierce independence. From World War II until the 1979 revolution, Iranians had believed that foreign powers controlled their destiny. This inferiority complex was especially intense regarding the United States, which did in fact hold great sway over internal Iranian affairs. (It was the U.S. that in 1953 helped bring back the Shah by orchestrating a coup that overthrew the militantly nationalist priome minister, Mohammed Mossadegh). This psychology has been starkly reversed under Khomeini, and most Iranians -- a people generally susceptible to conspiracy theories -- nevertheless now consider Iran's destiny to be in Iranian hands.

Finally, Iran under Khomeini has become a martial state. Opposition to the war exists, but it cannot mask the reality of a new and aggressive military spirit among Iranians. The last time Iran had fought a war was in 1826 against Russia -- a war Iran lost. Since then, many Iranians assumed the country had no taste or talent for war. But with the successful defense of Iranian territory against the Iraqi invasion, Iran has emerged as a country with not only fighting capabilities (which it also had under the Shah) but also the will to use them. Combined with its population and potential industrial/military strength, Iran will be a regional military force long into the future.

For America, now escalating its military presence in the Persian Gulf, the implications of Iran's new-found warlike nature are profound -- especially when contrasted with the United States' continuing qualms about using military force. Compare the most recent Iranian and American experiences with war. In the last eight years, Iran has lost hundreds of thousands of people in its war with Iraq, and it shows few signs that will stop. Entire towns have been erased from the map in Khuzistan; waves of young Iranians have gone to their deaths with the promise of martyrdom; Iranian forces have been the targets of chemical weapons; and Iraqi missiles have struck inside Tehran.

What is the United States willing to do to further punish such a country? How far is America willing to go? Disenchantment with the Vietnam war was based not only on American casualties and confusion as to why the Unied States was there but also on a profound discomfort with the killing and destruction that U.S. military power had caused. Recall, too, the concern of the American populace when there were civilian casualties in Grenada and when Mohamar Gadafi's daughter was killed in the air attack on Libya.

Now the administration has a list of potential Iranian targets for retaliation, targets reportedly chosen with an eye towards a minimal loss of life, either American or Iranian -- "surgical strikes" that would entail little sacrifice, that would be punish Iran through technological wizardry without soiling our hands. But what can such a style of warmaking accomplish against a country that is battle-hardened, a country that has lost more people to war in the last seven years than the United States lost in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined?

Thus, American policymakers are faced with major questions about the use of its military strength and about the enduring nature of the Iranian revolution, a revolution that will remain anti-American into the foreseeable future. The options available to the United States are limited, but they do exist. They will, above all, require patience and steadiness:

First, the United States should, as much as possible, try to maintain limited contact with the Iranians through third-party countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Japan and West Germany.

Second, the United States should maintain only a low-key presence in the Gulf. Given the military constraints noted above unnecessary confrontation with Iran must be avoided. A military showdown not only would be useless as a coercive measure, but it would only further isolate Iran, enhance the regime's aggressive nature and possibly even force Iran into the Soviet camp.

This is not to say that the United States will never be forced to take a military stand against Iran. But that time has not come; the circumstances do not exist to warrant paying the high price of a military showdowon. American policymakers must realize that, even though dialogue or constructive relations with Iran are exceedingly difficult if not impossible, confrontation is not an acceptable alternative. A policy of patience and neutrality may be politically unpalatable for the Reagan administrration and its successor, but it is the best path for the United States to follow.

Hossein Askari is a professor at George Washington University and a lecturer at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute and the War College. Charles Wilbanks is a writer now studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.