U.S. intelligence has picked up evidence that Iran is allowing some food shipments into Iraq, and administration officials said they expect Iran to help Iraqi President Saddam Hussein just enough to prolong the gulf crisis without strengthening Saddam's hand.

The officials said it could be months and perhaps years before Iraq feels the full force of the international trade embargo imposed on it after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. If Iran agrees to an Iraqi request for a hookup of oil pipelines, one official said, it would allow the Iraqis "to survive the sanctions almost indefinitely."

Iran has not yet responded to that request, according to intelligence reports, but administration officials said an Iraq-Iran pipeline carrying 200,000 to 500,000 barrels a day could be completed within 30 days.

A likely route, they said, would be from an Iraqi pipeline east of Az Zubayr in southeast Iraq to a large Iranian refinery at Abadan, a distance of about 25 miles across the Shatt al Arab waterway.

Such a step, for which Iran would probably charge a hefty premium, would provide Iraq with credits for the purchase, through Iran, of fresh supplies of food and medicine, the officials said.

"It would help Saddam some," one said. "But even if it were 500,000 barrels -- and that's a maximum -- we're still talking about less than one-fifth of their normal export earnings in oil, at the very best."

Other high-ranking administration officials said they do not believe Iran is seeking to break the United Nations embargo in a major way, but rather that Tehran, with a devastated economy, is trying to make money from its old enemy, Iraq. Officials said that conflicting statements from Iran's leadership probably indicate Iran wants to have it both ways, committing itself to the embargo publicly while quietly trying to sell food and other supplies to Baghdad.

The officials would not speculate on Iran's possible reaction to Iraq's pipeline proposal, expected to come up during a forthcoming visit to Baghdad by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Meanwhile, State Department officials said they hope Syrian President Hafez Assad, who spent the last four days visiting Tehran, will help persuade Iran not to break the embargo.

Before the Kuwaiti invasion, Iraq, rebuilding from its eight-year war with Iran, had a $35 billion-a-year economy, with real annual growth of 8 to 9 percent in the last two years. But it was heavily dependent on oil exports of about $15 billion a year. Imports were estimated at $11 billion in 1989, including $3 billion in food.

The logistical difficulties of getting even small percentages of those amounts past the embargo are enormous. Iraqi food imports in 1989, an administration economic expert said, required the equivalent of 150 cargo ships, each with a 50,000-ton capacity.

The Bush administration is keeping a wary eye on the possibility that oil tankers may begin a shuttle in coastal waters between Iraq and Iran. According to intelligence reports, three Iraqi tankers recently took on about 2.4 million barrels of oil at a terminal in the Persian Gulf, and they could deliver it to Iran's Kharg Island terminal without entering international waters.

Even with an Iraq-Iran oil connection, officials here said, the Iraqi economy will never recover as long as U.N. sanctions are in place.

Basically, Iraq "has bought itself the right to become an Albania," surviving isolated from the world community, one said. "That is the side on which an embargo will have an effect. Whether it will be enough to get Saddam out of Kuwait, we don't know yet. . . . But we're not going to be starving them into submission. That just wasn't going to happen."

An oil industry analyst, Fareed Mohamedi of the Petroleum Finance Co. here, said that one way Iraq might get a continuing trickle of supplies from Iran would be by designating 150,000 barrels out of a 200,000 barrel-a-day flow as war reparations to Iran and using the other 50,000 barrels to pay for food and medicine.

Construction of a pipeline or an oil tanker shuttle operation could be quickly detected, Mohamedi said. But right now, he said, President Bush seems to be underplaying reports of cooperation between Iran and Iraq. "The West needs Iran now more than Iran needs the West," Mohamedi said. "It cannot afford to take on two gulf countries at this point."

The U.S. Agriculture Department predicted last week that 1.75 million tons of grain would find its way into Iraq by next July, a sharp reduction in Iraq's usual import level but considerably more than what other U.S. officials have estimated.

"I'm sure there is food going across the {Iran-Iraq} border now . . . enough to avoid starvation," Mohamedi said. "There is too much money to be made."

In a related incident, Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem Saturday fired one of his advisers for shipping 140 tons of Argentine beef to Iraq through Iran, Reuter reported from Buenos Aires.

A government statement said that Alberto Samid had "collaborated with the government of Iraq" in violation of the international embargo.