The United States reacted coolly yesterday to Iran's latest diplomatic maneuvering in the Persian Gulf, rejecting any role for Tehran as a mediator between the allies and Iraq in the gulf war, and saying that direct contacts with Iran should be limited to previous U.S.-Iran differences.

State Department spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said Iran was welcome to try to persuade Saddam Hussein to leave Kuwait, but that the United States had not had any direct contact with Iran recently, and saw no need for any on the war.

Tutwiler was responding to remarks in Tehran by President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani that he had presented "ideas" to Iraq to end the gulf war and would be willing to deal with Washington if the response from Baghdad proved positive.

"Our response to that would be, what's to mediate?" said Tutwiler. "We would be pleased, obviously, if anyone could get Saddam Hussein to fully comply with these 12 U.N. resolutions" that she said "lay out the standard for ending this conflict." Tutwiler added that "the only mediation in our opinion that could be appropriate would be for the people who communicate with Saddam Hussein to convince him to comply."

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and Tutwiler said there had been no communications through the usual third party, Switzerland.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said, "If someone can come up with a diplomatic resolution that achieves" Saddam's withdrawal from Kuwait, "that would be fine, but I frankly don't expect it."

Administration officials and diplomats interpreted the latest Iranian moves as part of a bid for power in the gulf when the war is over. They said Iran hopes to capitalize on the damage the war has done to its longtime rival, Iraq, while at the same time scoring points with the West by remaining steadfastly neutral.

"They have resumed relations with the British, they understand the United States is going to be a player in the region for the forseeable future and this could well be part of their effort to position themselves," a senior U.S. official said.

A well-informed diplomatic source said that envoys from France, Algeria and Yemen who met with Iranian officials last weekend received strong assurances that Iran would remain neutral in the war. The source said Iran told the envoys it is determined that Iraq must pull out of Kuwait.

At the same time, Iran made it clear to the envoys that it wants to ensure that foreign military forces evacuate the gulf after the war. Iranian officials also said they would oppose any effort by the allied forces to go beyond Kuwait and seek to take territory in Iraq.

In recent commentaries, some Iranian officials have accused the coalition forces of going beyond the U.N. resolutions with the massive aerial bombing of targets in Iraq. Iran apparently is hoping the war will debilitate its longtime foe, but at the same time Tehran fears that destruction of the country would invite mischief and infiltration by other regional powers.

Iran is expected to seek a major role in post-war security arrangements.

The envoys who visited Tehran, including Francois Scheer, secretary general of the French foreign ministry, came away with the impression that Iran is seeking to gain whatever it can from the war, according to the diplomatic source. This includes keeping, for now, the approximately 89 Iraqi warplanes that fled to Iran.

Rafsanjani's conciliatory comments are "a signal that Iran wants to pocket {gains} on the American side," said the diplomatic source. "This war is a blessing for the Iranians -- so far, so good."

Officials said the United States remains open to contacts with Iran on previous differences, which include the fate of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, but in the past Iran has not shown much interest. "We've always said we'd sit down with them if they wanted to sit down," said a U.S. official. "What we don't want to do is sit down to talk about the war. That would send a very bad signal . . . a message {to the allies} we are trying to or willing to cut a deal."

Staff writer Ann Devroy contributed to this report.