DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- Propelled once again into the headlines by the attack on the USS Stark, the tanker war in the Persian Gulf essentially remains a manageable sideshow compared to the ground fighting between Iran and Iraq farther north.
Whether that continues to be the case may depend on Kuwait's gamble that its ingenuity in seeking superpower protection for perhaps a third of its oil exports will force Moscow and Washington to impose an end to the nearly seven-year-old war.
Diplomats and analysts in the region say that gamble rests on an unspoken assumption that sooner or later the superpowers will come to blows with Iran if the war continues.
The most likely catalysts for such a confrontation are generally thought to be naval units of Iran's freewheeling and unpredictable Revolutionary Guards, whose subordination to the disciplined regular Navy is questionable. Another threat is of a kamikaze operation, the naval equivalent of the "smiling truck driver" who blew up himself and 241 U.S. marines in Beirut in 1983.
The Reagan administration recently has stressed repeatedly the Iranian Navy's adherence to the rules of navigation. It also has toned-down its vocal opposition to the threat represented by Chinese Silkworm missiles that Iran has purchased as the ultimate weapon to close the Strait of Hormuz if Iraq stopped Iranian oil exports.
Western and Arab diplomats and analysts say there is an understanding in the administration that an attack on Iran is likely to have far-reaching consequences, no matter what the initial emotional release gained from bombing Iranian bases, refineries or other oil installations.
Some of Washington's remaining friends among moderate Arab states fear that hostilities would sour U.S. relations with Iran, to Moscow's probable benefit, for years beyond Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death.
Others worry that Iran may simply ignore U.S. and Soviet protection, continue to attack other shipping and, in the process, make the superpower intervention seem irrelevant.
So far, outside powers have demonstrated no ability to bring the cessation of hostilities closer.
The tanker war itself is remarkable mostly for what it has not accomplished rather than for what it has. Since May 1984, when Iraq -- emboldened by new shipments of French arms -- began the tanker war in earnest, more than 200 seamen have died in attacks on nearly 300 vessels, most of them tankers. But only one tanker has been sunk, a small number severely damaged and a few cargo carriers sunk.
Such human and economic damage has been absorbed as added business expenses in the form of higher insurance rates, protracted drydock repairs, time-consuming oil shuttles and transshipments and war bonuses paid to tanker crews.
Iraq's goal of forcing an end to the war by snuffing out Iran's oil exports remains elusive. Indeed, the Stark affair has allowed Iran to increase oil exports to 2 million barrels a day, thanks to apparent U.S. pressure on Baghdad to stop attacks on shipping until congressional criticism of the deal with Kuwait abates.
Despite the tanker war's gradually increasing tempo, shipping sources conservatively estimate that well over 95 percent of the gulf's oil reaches world customers. That outcome largely reflects the belligerents' tactics and choice of weaponry.
Iraqi pilots targeting tankers still rely on French-made Exocet missiles, which the Argentine Air Force used effectively against British warships in the 1982 Falklands fighting -- and which killed 37 seamen aboard the Stark. But the Iraqis have used conventional bombs on Kharg Island's well-defended loading facilities and have failed to knock it out. Closing of Kharg, military specialists argue, alone could have stopped Iran's oil exports.
Giant tankers are sitting ducks, but hard to sink. The sea-skimming Exocets predictably hit about nine feet above the waterline, their heat-seeking guidance systems and warheads homing in on tankers' automated engine rooms, which can be left unmanned.
Innovation has been left to cash-poor Iran, forced to find ever less expensive weapons systems. Iran first deployed U.S.-built F4 Phantom aircraft to attack shipping. But last year Tehran began husbanding its few remaining fixed-wing aircraft for the more important fighting farther north.
Starting last spring, Iranian helicopters mounted with French-made AS12 wire-guided air-to-surface missiles began attacking tankers' crew quarters and steering gear to disable the ships and terrorize crews.
But soon helicopters, too, were deemed too valuable to waste on the tanker war. Into the breech went vessels of the regular Iranian Navy, only to be replaced in midwinter by Revolutionary Guards operating in fiberglass speedboats purchased in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe.
Operating in pairs from Iranian islands and offshore oil platforms, the speedboats attacked shipping with such standard infantry weapons as heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
The guards have proved inventive. Two small Iranian dhows, one mounted with a field gun, last month attacked the Golar Robin tanker, punching 29 large holes in the crew quarters.
But, perhaps bothered by seasonal high winds and waves in the northern gulf, Iran has cut back its use of speedboats recently in favor of mines. They are relatively inexpensive, easy to distribute from fishing craft, hard to detect or sweep and difficult to trace.
Specialists tracking the tanker war are struck by the high failure rate of weapons used by both sides. Iraq's Exocet warheads often do not explode. Only 10 percent of Iran's Italian-made Seakiller surface-to-surface missiles exploded last fall. Specialists noted that their 10-year guarantee had expired long since. Malfunctions also plagued the Iranians' AS12 missiles.
More often than not, specialists noted, the problem lay not with the sophisticated high-technology electronic guidance systems but with the warhead.