It's unlikely that Iran, for all its bombast and threatening gestures, will provoke a prolonged shooting war with the United States in the Persian Gulf. The reason is simple: Iran's economic crisis is already completely beyond the Khomeini regime's ability to control.

Tehran's predicament was laid out in undisguised starkness at a secret meeting an Iranian Cabinet official held recently with trusted Iranian news executives. The official, Behzad Nabavi, minister of heavy industries, explained to the journalists with remarkable candor how serious the country's economic crisis is -- and why the regime can't handle it.

Nabavi's purpose was to achieve a more sophisticated level of censorship in the government-controlled press. The newspaper executives were told the full, frightening details of Iran's economic plight so that they might better prevent any hints of it from being published inadvertently.

Nabavi told the editors that the session itself must be kept secret. He ordered that no tape recording be made of the meeting and that no notes be taken. But not every participant obeyed.

''The economic situation is extremely critical,'' Nabavi told the news executive. As for the near future, he confessed frankly: ''We have no idea of what program we can have, because we have no idea of what amount of foreign currency will be available. Thus programming under the present conditions is not possible. Confusion {and} disorder . . . prevail in the Cabinet.''

Nabavi's admission of frustration becomes understandable on examination of a separate and significant 10-page document circulated among top Iranian government officials. It is stamped ''Top Secret'' in Farsi and was smuggled out of Tehran to us by the People's Mojahedin, the principal anti-Khomeini resistance group.

The last page is the most revealing part. A table lists the key budget figures for the past four years and the current year.

For the year ended last March 20, the government anticipated $3.8 billion in revenue -- with expenditures on the war and government services of $4.3 billion. So the budget deficit was officially projected at an unhealthy $500 million. But the actual deficit, according to the table, was $1.6 billion, more than three times the projected shortfall.

The secret document lists three sources of revenue for the Tehran regime: taxes, oil exports and ''miscellaneous.'' All three income categories failed to produce as expected.

Miscellaneous revenues totaled $394 million, a far cry from the expected $689 million for that category. The government counted on $1.65 billion in taxes but was able to extract only $1.16 billion from the Iranian people.

Oil revenues were the most catastrophic: a paltry $438 million instead of the $1.66 billion the regime had anticipated.

In the secret Iranian budget for the current Islamic year, Tehran's projected oil income is a mere $487 million. But a footnote to the table explains that this means Iran must export 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. And because of the wartime limitation on Iranian oil production, the document acknowledges that the export goal can be met only if domestic oil consumption is cut back to 800,000 barrels per day.

At a time when this consumption is already so meager as to inflict hardship on the Iranian people, 800,000 barrels a day would be severe enough. Yet it appears that the ayatollah's ministers are lying to each other again and that Iran's domestic-use refineries can't produce even enough to meet the modest 800,000-barrels-a-day goal.

As near as can be determined, domestic production will be no more than 430,000 barrels a day -- and most of this will be siphoned off for military use. Clearly, increased hardship is in store for the already suffering Iranian people.

The Iranian budget deficit for the current year is projected at $1.6 billion -- the same as last year's actual deficit. But like last year's projection, this year's will probably be about one-third of the actual deficit.

The good news for the West is that the Khomeini regime's self-induced economic crisis will cause even those reckless leaders to avoid an all-out war with the United States, which would surely bring the regime crashing down in ruins.