By launching a new attack against Iraq over the weekend, the Iranians seem determined to prove that France's sale to Iraq of five Super Etendard fighters won't break their will to destroy the Iraqi regime.
French military sources confirm that Iraqi pilots have completed their training on the Super Etendards. The planes have been scheduled to be flown to Iraq any day now, although sources in Paris say their flight to Iraq was recently delayed at the very last moment.
The arrival on the battlefield of the supersonic French jets, equipped with formidable Exocet missiles, is expected by West European analysts to increase the risk of escalation in the three-year-old war between Iran and Iraq.
Perhaps the most obvious target for the Iraqi Super Etendards is the network of Iranian oil terminals on the island of Kharg in the Gulf. But Iranian President Hojatolislam Ali Khamenei threatened in a Sept. 18 speech that ''not a single drop of oil will leave the Gulf if a new weapon threatening Iranian oil exports is introduced in the area of the Gulf.''
According to a knowledgeable pilot, ''The Super Etendards are not invincible aircraft. The Iranians should try to intercept them before they can fire their Exocet AM-39 missiles.''
Military experts agree there is little that can be done against the computer-guided Exocets. It was these sea-skimming missiles that the Argentines used against the British fleet in the Falklands war, sinking the destroyer Sheffield.
The Exocets have a range of 43 miles. This means that Iraqi pilots would be able to strike at Kharg Island while flying out of the range of the Iranian ground-to-air Hawk missiles. This, in turn, would force the Iranians to use fighter planes to defend the oil installations - and hence concentrate the bulk of their fighters in the north of the Gulf, leaving their ground forces with reduced air protection.
''We're preparing a warm welcome for the Super Etendards,'' Colonel Moinipour , the head of the Iranian Air Force, said recently. He says that his men will be able to neutralize the Super Etendards. He contends that the Iranian Air Force has already shot down 10 Super Frelon helicopters which also were equipped with Exocet missiles.
Other Iranian government officials are less optimistic. They recognize the Super Etendards will give Iraq a military edge. But this doesn't soften their stance.
''Should any disruption occur in the export of Iranian oil, then no country in the region will be able to export its oil,'' Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vellayati said in July.
''If a single missile hits Kharg Island,'' said an Iranian diplomat last week , ''we'll set the whole Gulf ablaze.''
During a Sept. 17 visit to a naval base, Iranian Speaker of Parliament Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani repeated Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz. Last week revolutionary guards took up positions on strategic islands commanding access to the strait.
European diplomats in Tehran say the Iranians seem determined to carry out their threats. ''The shallow waters of the Gulf are very easy to mine,'' an expert says, ''and the Iranian Navy is the only regional fleet with major warships.''
Oil company executives say the countries bordering the Gulf at present are exporting 8 million barrels of crude oil per day through the Strait of Hormuz. Should the strait be closed, the Saudis could export only 2 million barrels per day through their newly built pipeline to the Red Sea.
Major oil companies so far have reacted quietly. They continue to send their tankers to Kharg as usual.
Military experts also note that the maintenance of the very sophisticated computer aboard the Super Etendards will require the permanent assistance of French technicians. This raises the question of how much freedom the Iraqis will enjoy in utilizing the Super Etendards.
The eventual Iranian reaction to the introduction of the Super Etendards in the region is also a question. Observers note that in the past Iranian leaders have alternated an extreme stubbornness and strength of purpose with an ability to compromise when facing dangerous threats.
After new victories by Iranian ground forces, the Iraqis are more eager than ever to find a way out of the war. Iranian revolutionary guards and soldiers backed by Iraqi Kurdish dissidents took several strategic mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan before the end of July. In this sector of the front, Iranian troops are now 12 miles within Iraq and have overrun the Iraqi garrison of Haj Umran. Another offensive brought the Iranian Army to the top of the hills north and west of the Iranian town of Mehran.
The Iranian push in Iraqi Kurdistan raises concern in Ankara, where the government fears an attack against the pipeline that takes Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean Sea through Turkey. The pipeline is a major source of income for Turkey. Turkey, which has so far remained neutral in the conflict, is intensifying its contacts with both Iran and Iraq.
The Iraqis responded to the recent Iranian military successes by bombarding Iranian border towns. Several hundred civilians are said to have been killed in attacks against the towns of Dezh Shahpur and Gilan-e Gharb.
Efforts to work out a compromise between Iran and Iraq are in a deadlock.