KUWAIT, AUG. 15 -- The growing U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is being viewed as something of a mixed blessing in the gulf nations that it is meant to reinforce.

Conversations and interviews with a wide spectrum of western and Arab diplomats, local and regional officials, Arab journalists and expatriates suggested that people in this volatile region, where 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves lie, are deeply divided over the value and meaning of the mushrooming U.S. naval commitment to defend Arab shipping in the strategic Persian Gulf.

In Kuwait, government officials are delighted with the internationalization of the gulf that they helped bring about by asking for U.S. Navy protection of their threatened shipping in the gulf.

The U.S. reflagging of 11 of Kuwait's oil and gas tankers and the provision of U.S. escorts for them have given this tiny, vulnerable oil emirate on the upper gulf a sense of security against Iranian threats against its oil industry and shipping.

But many others in the region fear that the U.S. presence is an exercise in "gunboat diplomacy" that is increasing tension and danger, rather than dissipating them.

The sudden rash of mines that has turned up in the Persian Gulf and, this week, beyond the gulf's Strait of Hormuz in the previously safe anchorages off the United Arab Emirates in the Gulf of Oman is viewed by some as proof that Iran is matching the United States move for move.

"It is hard not to conclude that tensions have escalated since the U.S. build-up began," said an Arab newspaper editor here who, like most of the people interviewed, asked to remain anonymous.

The sinking by a mine today of a small supply ship, the Anita, off the United Arab Emirates' normally busy port of Fujayrah on the Gulf of Oman has reinforced the feeling of unease and confusion in the lower gulf over the escalating confrontation between the United States and Iran. Another ship, the supertanker Texaco Caribbean, was holed by a mine in the same area Monday, the first time that the gulf war had spread beyond the Strait of Hormuz.

"No one thought it could happen here -- this has always been the safest place in the gulf," said Glen D'Souza, a Fujayrah shipping agent, in a telephone interview. "Now, after this, everyone is afraid."

"Before, we were coping just fine with the hazards of the gulf war," said a shipping agent in Dubai. "Sure, there were attacks on shipping by Iran and Iraq, but we had all adjusted to it. Real losses were, in fact, minor, and at no time was the flow of oil to the outside world impeded. Now we are not certain anymore."

Since the Texaco Caribbean was hit by a mine, shipping companies have begun waving off their ships from Fujayrah, until now the major staging anchorage for runs into the gulf, and ship insurance premiums have been raised for the area.

Others interviewed expressed their growing unease with Iran: its anger at the intrusion in the gulf of foreign naval forces, including those of the United States, France and Britain; its staging of violent demonstrations in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca two weeks ago in which more than 400 pilgrims died; and its own growing naval operations in and around the gulf.

"Washington thinks that just by making a show of force {it} will somehow cajole the Iranians into docility," said a senior European diplomat here. "But to the Iranians, U.S. military brandishing has tended in the past only to stir them up, like a matador's cape waved in front of a bull.

"The fear here is that that is happening again -- that instead of restraining Iran, the U.S. is once more inflaming it."

The question continuously asked here is what the United States can and would do if one of its ships is hit by a mine, presumably placed by Iran, or by one of the Chinese-made Silkworm surface-to-sea missiles that Iran has deployed along its coastline near the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite the presence in the region of a 16-ship U.S. Navy flotilla, with eight more Navy vessels en route, the United States' military options against Iran are considered limited.

"The United States could take out some of the missiles," said a U.S. diplomat here. "It could attack some of the Revolutionary Guard naval bases from which in the past they have launched attacks on shipping. They could even, if they had it in them, mine Iran's own oil shipping ports, as Les Aspin {chairman of the House Armed Services Commttee} has suggested. But in the end, what would that really accomplish?

"Probably nothing, given the zeal and determination and outright fanaticism of Iran's Islamic revolutionaries. Iran, after all, is not Libya. It believes and glories in the martyrdom of its faithful. Should the U.S. strike Iran, that would not be a deterrent necessarily, but an incitement."

In the militarily weak Arab nations that line the southern rim of the gulf, that possibility causes concern and unease. Survival of the weak here has long depended on diplomatic maneuver and, ultimately, accommodation with their stronger, more aggressive neighbors such as Iran and, before the gulf war, Iraq. Thus, confrontation has never been viewed as a viable policy.

"We are not convinced that the current state of affairs is in our best interest," said one gulf diplomat here.

After staying out of the Iran-Iraq conflict for seven years, these gulf nations still hold out hope that they can avoid being dragged into the war. But, although their leaders have officially accepted the U.S. build-up, many of these nations' officials, residents and businessmen harbor doubts about the escalating course of events.

"The flow of oil had not been stopped or even slowed by the gulf war," said a shipping official in Dubai. "So what are the Americans doing here?

"One cannot escape the evidence that all they have succeeded in doing is sparking a massive escalation of the gulf war with no immediate end in sight."