DAMASCUS, SYRIA, MARCH 1 -- Iraq's surface-to-surface missile barrage against the Iranian capital, Tehran, represents a significant escalation of the 7 1/2-year-old Persian Gulf war at a time when there is growing desperation in Baghdad that the support of its Arab allies is flagging and international attention is being diverted to the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Seventeen of the new Iraqi missiles reportedly slammed into Tehran between Monday evening and midafternoon today, killing at least 27 persons and injuring 100, according to Iran. The missile attacks have suddenly given Iraq the capability to bring the war to Iran's capital with the same level of terror that Iran has inflicted on the Iraqi capital with more than 30 long-range missile strikes in the last two years.

{Iraq says it produced the long-range missiles itself and has many more in its arsenal, Reuter reported. An Iraqi spokesman said the raids marked a turning point in the conflict and would avenge Iraqi war dead.}

Following last month's first use by Iraq of long-range bombers and air-launched versions of Silkworm missiles designed to hit Iranian shipping targets in the southern reaches of the Persian Gulf, the Iraqi leadership has clearly made a forceful move in 1988 to push the war to a higher intensity.

But equally important as the advance in weaponry and escalating Iraqi tactics is an apparent underlying strategy by Iraq to goad Iran into another full-scale conflagration on the battlefield this year.

"For the first time in our history, we want the Iranians to attack," a well-placed Iraqi official told a reporter during a visit to Baghdad last month. The official explained that Iraq's confidence that it could repel a major offensive would demonstrate to Iraq's allies that Iran had no hope of breaching the country's defenses. Moreover, the world would be reminded, he said, that the war is a volatile flashpoint requiring a major diplomatic effort to bring it to an end.

Western officials say that the easing of the "urgency" created by two years of Iranian offensives against Iraq's southern ports of Faw and Basra has taken the pressure off international efforts in the U.N. Security Council.

These western officials said that an American plan to force a vote last month in the United Nations calling for an arms embargo against Iran has suffered further delay, which is another troubling sign to Baghdad that there remains substantial reluctance by a number of countries, led by the Soviet Union and China, to confront Iran with international sanctions.

As a result, frustration has been running high in the Iraqi regime, where the realities of Iran's population advantage over Iraq suggest that a drawn-out war of attrition is too dangerous for the long-term survival of the government of President Saddam Hussein.

The consensus among Arab and western diplomats in the region is that Iraq sees its strategic interests best served by an escalation of international involvement in the region. That escalation that began with last year's deployment of a large western naval armada in the gulf in tandem with an American-sponsored effort in the United Nations to force a cease-fire.

Highpoints for Iraq were the U.S. convoy operation to protect 11 reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers and last November's Arab League condemnation of Iran for its occupation of Arab lands and call to the United Nations to take the next step in its July 20 cease-fire resolution and impose an arms embargo.

Even Syria, Iraq's mortal enemy in the Arab world, joined in the Arab League declaration. But Iraq's hopeful strategy of coupling international pressure with a decisive defeat of this winter's Iranian offensive has been dealt a series of blows.

First, Iran failed to mobilize an assault force equal to the one it threw against Basra last year, forcing it to reconsider mounting an offensive that might be defeated just before April elections for its parliament, according to western officials.

Second, the Arab solidarity that Iraq had won was partly undercut in December when gulf Arab leaders met and Saudi Arabia's King Fahd encouraged Syria to open negotiations between Iran and the gulf Arab states aimed at reducing tensions in the "tanker war" that was threatening the economic interests of the gulf Arab states.

Third, the drive by western and Arab states to force an arms embargo vote in the United Nations against Iran lost steam as the Security Council turned its attention to the Palestinian uprising in the Israeli-occupied territories.

Iraqi officials have shown their frustration by putting additional pressure on the gulf Arabs to push the U.N. process and gaining Saudi Arabia's cooperation to send its foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, to Moscow this year seeking a commitment from Soviet leaders to vote for an arms embargo. Saud's visit was followed by a similiar trip by Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.

In both instances, Soviet officials were said to have recognized the need to support an arms embargo, but neither Saud nor Aziz brought back a commitment on the timing of Soviet support for an embargo vote. Soviet officials continue to criticize the vote as a gesture that will have little impact on Iran's ability to secure the weapons its needs to continue the war.

Meanwhile, Iraq has moved unilaterally to turn up the heat of both the tanker war and the land war. On Feb. 11, an Iraqi long-range bomber launched a Chinese-made Silkworm missile that hit a Danish supertanker en route from the Saudi port of Ras Tanura to Corpus Christi, Tex. Iraq has not acknowledged responsibility for the attack, but its state news agency claimed the same night that Iraqi forces had hit a "very large naval target" in the gulf.

Whether the attack -- and the firing the next night of two Silkworm missiles in the vicinity of a U.S. naval convoy -- was accidental was not as important to western officials as the escalation Iraq had embarked upon by sending long-range bombers to the lower gulf armed for the first time with missiles whose aging guidance systems make them dangerous and indiscriminate weapons in the crowded shipping lanes.

This week's missile strikes on Tehran are no direct danger to western or neutral forces in the conflict, but Iraq has succeeded by this display of force in once again focusing the world's attention on this unresolved war.