The U.S. strike at Iranian oil platforms was intended as a limited and largely symbolic action signaling that the United States has the political will to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf, senior administration officials said yesterday.

"No, we're not going to have a war with Iran," President Reagan said late yesterday as he left the White House to visit First Lady Nancy Reagan in Bethesda Naval Medical Center. "They're not that stupid."

But officials acknowledged that the military action, while apparently acceptable to all factions within the administration and to Congress, left open the question of whether it will set off an escalating series of retaliatory attacks.

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said, "We consider this matter is now closed." But this optimistic view was contradicted later by Vice President Bush, who said, "Nobody's thinking this will end it, but at some point they {the Iranians} have to realize they have to pay a price."

White House officials said Reagan had insisted upon retaliation but wanted a response that could be taken "without putting our people at risk." A White House official said, "It was the president who was quite firm that Iran had not attacked a U.S. warship and our response should be something less" than a major escalation of the confict.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the attack was aimed at making "the important military and political point" that the Reagan administration intends to retaliate against Iranian actions that endanger the U.S. policy of escorting Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf.

"It was the least provocative military response open to us," a senior official said. U.S. officials emphasized that the attack was conducted in international waters, avoiding the Iranian mainland, and was designed to keep casualties to a minimum.

Reagan decided to retaliate within hours after an Iranian missile struck the Sea Isle City, a Kuwaiti tanker flying the U.S. flag, last Friday. But the choice of targets took many hours of meetings by subordinates culminating in a presidential decision on Saturday afternoon, officials said.

These officials said retaliation was first urged by Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who met with Reagan on Friday. Crowe recommended that "it was necessary to take a military action that would result in damage to Iran's military capability -- it should not simply be symbolic," said a Pentagon official familiar with the internal discussions.

White House officials said Reagan agreed at this Friday meeting that a retaliatory operation should be conducted but asked senior officials to report to him the following day with a list of options.

Several military options were discussed in a series of policy group meetings conducted by senior aides from the Pentagon, State Department and White House and chaired by the deputy national security adviser, Colin L. Powell. As described by one official, the military wanted an option that would be "militarily useful," while State Department representatives emphasized a response that would avoid widening the conflict or causing needless casualties. The White House wanted a response that would "make a firm statement" without bolstering congressional calls to invoke the 1973 War Powers legislation, the official said.

"Everyone was fairly comfortable with the consensus that emerged, because there was something in it for everyone," said an official. He said that the proposal to strike the oil derrick emerged as a consensus recommendation that was presented to the president Saturday afternoon by national security adviser Frank C. Carlucci and quickly accepted.

Arab and administration sources said both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were urging the United States "to take firm action" and would have liked to see a U.S. strike on Faw Peninsula from where the Iranians fired the missile, apparently a Chinese-made Silkworm, that struck the Sea Isle City.

But one U.S. official insisted that these Arab nations were "not displeased" by the limited action taken and realized that Faw presented a difficult problem because it is inside Iraqi territory held by Iran.

Officials said that the option of striking the oil derrick, while limited, was acceptable to Crowe and Weinberger because "it destroyed a radar operation that has been very bothersome in the gulf." They said the Pentagon also recognized there were "military complications" in taking out the Silkworms because of their mobility and indications that they had been moved from their launching sites at Faw.

Another option, discussed and discarded by U.S. officials, was striking at Farsi Island, which has been the launching pad for Iranian speedboat attacks on gulf shipping.

Present at the decision-making meeting in the White House on Saturday were Reagan, Weinberger, Carlucci, Powell, White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Undersecretary of State Michael H. Armacost. Secretary of State George P. Shultz was traveling in the Middle East.

House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said he and other congressional leaders were briefed Sunday night at the White House by Reagan, who wore a blue-and-white warmup suit and slippers, and by senior officials. Wright and House Majority Leader Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said in separate meetings with reporters that it was clear that Reagan had not called them in to seek their advice but to brief them on the action he had ordered.

"The information was very full," Foley said. "We were dealt with very forthrightly . . . . I am satisfied, but the decision was made by the president. The ships were under way. We were not being asked to approve or disapprove."

Wright said that the five congressional leaders briefed on Sunday night were generally supportive of the decision, adding that it was important to demonstrate to the Iranians that they could not attack U.S.-flagged vessels "without expecting measured retaliation." Foley said that "my guess is, if it came to a vote today, Congress would vote to keep the forces" in the Persian Gulf.

Although the U.S. retaliation yesterday was provoked by Iran's missile attack on a ship in Kuwaiti territorial waters, the action left unanswered the question of whether the United States is prepared to embark upon a policy of defending U.S.-flag ships whenever they come under Iranian attack anywhere in the Persian Gulf. In selecting an Iranian target in international waters, the administration avoided enlarging its commitment either to the direct defense of Kuwait or to U.S.-flag ships based within Kuwaiti territorial waters.

So far, the administration still has not devised a policy for dealing with this "gray area" threat to U.S. shipping, apparently hoping instead to deter further attacks on U.S.-flag ships inside Kuwaiti waters by showing Tehran through its attack on the oil derricks that there is "no free lunch" for its aggressive actions.

Staff writers David S. Broder, David Hoffman, Molly Moore and Eric Pianin contributed to this report.