IT IS THE ayatollah's dream come true: Iraq and the United States locked in combat, each attempting to destroy the other's power in the region. Indeed, just when we thought we could forget about Iran, it is back in the headlines again, in the mysterious and worrisome role of hosting a massive flow of Iraqi military aircraft.

When American satellite reconnaissance specialists turned on their photo coverage of Iranian airfields on Jan. 14, two days before the opening allied assault, they were stunned to see evidence of apparent collusion between two sworn and bitter enemies: Iraqi airplanes, including several commercial airliners, parked in Iran. That number has subsequently multiplied to nearly 100 top-performance aircraft, by the Pentagon's count. According to the Iranian news agency IRNA, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velyati last week criticized Iraq because the planes had arrived in Iran without prior approval. Velyati also reaffirmed that Iran would impound such aircraft until the end of the war. Nonetheless, the presence of these planes sitting comfortably on the tarmac of Saddam's erstwhile sworn enemy has baffled nearly all observers. Is Iran playing a double game? And if so, what is it?

First of all, getting into the minds of Saddam and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the political analyst's nightmare. Saddam, though the more transparent of the two, is possessed of massively bad political judgment, making an outsider's assessment of what is in Saddam's own best interests -- even in the context of Iraqi culture -- perilous at best. And Iran is possessed of the most complex, multi-tiered and convoluted political thinking of any nation anywhere.

In the absence of more precise knowledge, no one can rule out the possibility that the planes were transferred to Iran without Saddam's involvement. There is, among a variety of possible scenarios, the chance of at least partial defections of Iraqi pilots, perhaps the first steps of a nascent move by Saddam's commanders to bail out of the war and save their country and its military assets as best they can.

Whatever the circumstances, Iran has sprung back into the gulf game. Last week, Tehran was host to a meeting of Iraqi, French, Algerian and Yemeni envoys that made the capital a "diplomatic center to put out the fires of war," according to Tehran Radio. But is that what Tehran really wants?

A look at the policy priorities of Iran's clerics sheds some helpful light on their thinking:

Iran's foreign policy is driven first and foremost by the vision and conviction that Iran is the sole, natural, dominant power of the gulf. Accordingly, Tehran seeks first to destroy Saddam Hussein and his powerful military machine.

Saddam's annexation of Kuwait is absolutely unacceptable to Tehran's interests, for it powerfully -- and permanently -- strengthens the financial and geopolitical position of Iran's chief regional rival.

Close on the heels of emasculating Iraq is the Iranian priority and determination to discredit and eliminate American power in the region as well -- and that of any other potential foreign challenger. The gulf must be left to the gulf's powers -- Iran first.

The U.S. military campaign against Iraq has serendipitously enabled Iran to have its cake and eat it too. Confident that America and its allies will almost surely eliminate Saddam and his power base, Iran is free hypocritically to pursue the high road of "principle," to decry the American attack against a Moslem country and its population, to condemn the American military presence in the region and to continue its propaganda against Saudi Arabia as the lackeys who brought American military forces back into the gulf again.

Thus the clerics are able to revel in their self-righteousness, all the while shedding crocodile tears at the damage inflicted on a fellow Moslem neighbor. Indeed, if the United States and its allies were not present, Iran would assuredly be singing a different tune, desperately seeking the means to compel Saddam to disgorge Kuwait.

Then why have Rafsanjani and his colleagues apparently decided to play host to nearly 100 "guest" Iraqi aircraft? The full story may never be known, but we can be sure that Iran's instinct for the crafty transaction still runs strong. Saddam may have struck some kind of a deal with Tehran -- at some peril to himself, for the Iranians can out-maneuver Saddam any day in the year.

Let us assume that Saddam has sent his aircraft to Iran. He almost surely had to figure that his planes would not be safe anywhere in the region except in Iran. No other gulf state will accept them. Turkey is a virtual belligerent. The Israelis would never permit Iraqi military aircraft to be stationed in Jordan. Hence Iran was the only option to keep the aircraft out of harm's way.

Yet surely Saddam cannot be willing to consign away such a large number of his highest performance aircraft for the duration of the war. The implications of doing so would be immense, for it would suggest that Saddam is actually thinking beyond the war to a peace in which he is alive and still able to recover his aircraft for another day.

But do we believe that Saddam is planning to sue for peace soon? Is this a forerunner of such a step? Will he actually pull out of Kuwait unconditionally, with his military structure in tatters? Surely Saddam is not altruistically leaving the aircraft for his successor. Saddam must still be thinking in war terms, seeking to preserve his aircraft until the moment of need arises when he can summon them back to Iraq. He must believe he has some deal with Iran to permit such an action.

Looking at the available evidence, the chances are good that Iran has indeed reached some kind of understanding with Saddam. The early January visit to Tehran of Saddam's number-two man, Izzet Ibrahim, together with the Iraqi minister for foreign affairs, the deputy prime minister and the transportation minister also suggests a deal. But Iran has reportedly also assured Washington indirectly that the aircraft will be impounded until Saddam's pullout from Kuwait. Whom will the Iranians betray in this deal? Saddam? or Washington?

As long as the aircraft are in Iranian custody, Tehran is the winner. What then would move Rafsanjani to release the planes back to his bitter enemy Saddam? Iran is probably content with a protracted war, much as the United States shed few tears for the protracted Iran-Iraq war. But Saddam and Rafsanjani each look independently to some kind of political victory that they each can exploit. Both probably look to the day when collective Moslem rage at the spectacle of unceasing, withering American bombing of Iraq may reach proportions that threaten Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, Syria's President Hafez Assad and even the gulf rulers.

If Washington wins the military campaign but loses the regional political war, then Iran will certainly want to be in on the kill. Iran could even return the aircraft to a disastrously weakened Saddam as a gesture of outrage against American predations upon Moslems. Iran will be the first to cheer the fall of Mubarak and of any of the gulf rulers. Nor will Iran be neutral if a firestorm of Islamic anger sweeps through the region -- an event long sought by Khomeini in his heyday.

That kind of scenario reflects the views of the ideologists in Iranian politics, who see political and social revolution in Islamic garb as the wave of the future in the Middle East. Perhaps they are right. Thus, strategically, they tend to overlook Saddam's swallowing up of Kuwait in favor of a united front with Iraq against what they regard as the greatest ideological threat in the region -- the Great Satan America and its allies.

The geopoliticians -- such as Rafsanjani and spiritual leader Ali Khamenei -- oppose them only by a matter of degree. Currently representative of the majority trend in Iranian politics, men like Rafsanjani are unwilling to subordinate Iran's immediate national interests to the ideologists' siren-song. The ideologists are not likely to prevail over them, since there is no way over the long term that, given their ancient geopolitical rivalry, Iran will lie down with Iraq.

But if the vision of Khomeini and the ideologists does not come to pass, if the United States can win the political struggle in the region as successfully as it has thus far pursued the military option, then Iran will have little ground to honor any secret commitment to Saddam. Should Saddam call for his aircraft in his hour of need, Iran can turn him down flat, content to watch him twist in the wind, and in possession of a large bargaining card for the future peace.

Whatever the circumstances, Saddam's transfer of Iraqi aircraft to Iran powerfully suggests he, too, nourishes only a bleak prognosis for the future character of the war. He seems to have conceded the air war for the moment and can only hope to fight an Iranian-style trench war, hand-to-hand against American soldiers in Kuwait.

Now that Iran is again a player in the gulf, it will rapidly be reasserting its claims to gulf leadership -- perhaps with less fanaticism this time around. The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council now want Iran as part of a new regional security arrangement. Iran's oil earnings improved with the spurt in the price of oil. Saddam, in yet another exercise of bad judgment, has ceded back to Iran all the so-called Iraqi "gains" from the bloody Iran-Iraq war. And the American war against Iraq has done more than almost any other single event to hasten the return of some kind of Iranian preeminence in the new gulf power vacuum.

In the interim, we should not be surprised at Iran's ability to come up with further startling tactical gambits down the road. As long as we realize what Iran's geopolitical aims in the region are -- aims that most emphatically do not include any strategic role for the United States -- we can be under no illusions about the motivation behind its future politic maneuvers.

Graham Fuller, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., is the author of the forthcoming book "The Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran," to be published by Westview.