If crude oil prices, which shot up yesterday in the wake of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, remain high in coming months, inflation will worsen in the United States and the nation's already sluggish economy could drop into a recession, a number of economists and oil industry analysts said yesterday.

But where crude oil prices may settle is anybody's guess at the moment, with estimates ranging yesterday from $20 a barrel -- which would be an increase of only $1 or $2 from level before the invasion -- to as much as $45.

Each $1-per-barrel increase in crude prices, if passed directly through to the pump, would raise gasoline prices by about 2.4 cents per gallon. A $5-per-barrel increase would add about 12 cents, slightly more than a 10 percent increase in the average price motorists now pay.

None of the analysts suggested that the invasion was likely to create any shortage of petroleum products or cause gasoline lines in this country. Refiners have unusually large stocks of crude oil on hand and the government has 580 million 42-gallon barrels of crude stored at its strategic petroleum reserve in salt domes in Louisiana and Texas that could be used to supplement regular supplies in an emergency.

But Sidney L. Jones, assistant treasury secretary for economic policy, expressed concern that higher oil prices would interrupt progress toward reducing inflation, worsen the U.S. trade deficit and have a "negative impact" on consumer confidence.

"We have been talking $19 {a barrel} oil," Jones said, referring to the oil price level that was anticipated before the invasion. "Now that will edge up as existing contracts expire. A few months out, that will begin to bleed into the {inflation} figures. ... We have been making progress on inflation and this confuses it."

Even if crude prices come back down, "we will have a price spike" that will affect reported inflation rates, he said.

Michael J. Boskin, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, stressed that a moderate increase in oil prices would not hurt that much. Boskin estimated that a 10 percent increase in world crude oil prices, passed through evenly to all petroleum product prices, translates into less than a 1 percent increase in the consumer price index. Boskin added that any such increase in the price level would be a one-time affair, rather than a permanently higher inflation rate, unless the Federal Reserve allows it to continue by increasing the rate of growth of the money supply.

A 10 percent increase in oil prices would also tend to slow the U.S. economy by 0.1 percent or 0.2 percent over the course of a year, Boskin said. By itself, such an oil price increase would not cause the U.S. economy to go into recession, he said.

"If there is an oil price increase that sticks, the U.S. economy is better able to deal with it than it was in the early 1970s," Boskin said. The economy is more flexible in a variety of ways than it was then, when oil prices were subject to a variety of government controls and markets were not free to adjust quickly to changes in supply and demand, he said.

Some analysts estimated that crude prices could rise to $25 a barrel, and possibly as much as $45 a barrel, but only if there were a sharp reduction in world oil production. If prices rose to $25 a barrel and stayed there, the result would be an addition of two percentage points or three percentage points to the level of the Consumer Price Index and a have a depressing effect on the economy.

If oil prices were to rise that much or more, the Federal Reserve would face a difficult decision whether to cushion some of the impact on the economy by adding cash to the banking system -- that is, whether to accommodate part or all of the added inflation.

One senior central bank official said it would be impossible to ease the impact of higher oil prices on the developing world by recycling billions of dollars in higher oil revenues to those countries through major banks, as was done in the 1970s.

Other officials and analysts said they thought any price impact would be muted, partly because world crude oil stocks are unusually high.

At the Department of Energy, Deputy Secretary W. Henson Moore declared that the loss of oil from Iraq and Kuwait would neither cause a shortage in the United States nor increase prices over the long run because there is an oversupply of oil in the world.

Some oil experts fear, however, that oil production from Kuwait and Iraq could, in fact, be lost to the world market for a while.

The United States has embargoed imports of Iraqi crude and government officials assume that the Kuwaiti government will seek through normal commercial legal channels to block sales of crude from that country. A fully successful embargo could remove nearly 5 million barrels of Kuwati and Iraqi oil from daily world production -- enough to send prices soaring, said Philip Verleger, an oil market expert at the Institute for International Economics.

Alternatively, the Iraqi invasion could intimidate other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to the point that the cartel and Iraq would cut production to achieve a price target of $25 to $30 a barrel.

Even before the invasion, Iraq's pressure on its neighbors had pushed average world crude oil prices from a brief low of $13 per barrel to the recent level of about $18. Much of the $5 increase likely will have little impact on gasoline or heating oil prices because refiners generally had increased their profit margins rather than reducing their selling prices when their cost of crude fell during the spring.

L. Douglas Lee, an economist with the Washington Analysis Corp., an economic consulting firm, said the initial conclusion he and other analysts there had reached was that "oil prices will go to $25 a barrel and stay there."

Lee said if his key price assumption is correct inflation would be a percentage point or so higher next year than the 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent he had forecast earlier.

Staff writers Mark Potts and Stuart Auerbach contributed to this report.