''This is not the final battle, but a limited offensive,'' Hashemi Rafsanjani , the speaker of the Iranian parliament, said recently on Tehran Radio about last week's outburst of fighting.
''We just wanted to reinforce our positions in the central sector of the front.''
Indeed, the Iranian news media have tended to play down the importance of this first Iranian land offensive in eight months.
Last week's fighting took place in the hilly border area between the Iranian village of Meimak and the Iraqi town of Mandali.
An Iranian diplomat contacted in Paris hints, however, that this new push may be part of a wider plan, the last stage of which would be an all-out offensive toward Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. The diplomat explains that the area that was taken during the recent fighting was one of the very few places along the entire front where the Iraqi Army had until now enjoyed strategic superiority.
The official Iranian news agency announced last Saturday that ''the warriors of Islam'' had taken a series of ridges overlooking Mandali. Minutes later the Iraqis acknowledged the loss of at least one of their positions, but they later announced the success of one of their counteroffensives. This was denied in Tehran.
After an Iranian government-sponsored tour of the Meimak region, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, the principal French news agency, reported Thursday that Iranian fighters have taken control of a mountainous area of about 50 square miles and are now less than 70 miles from Baghdad.
Also on Thursday, Baghdad announced that its Navy had destroyed four naval targets near Bandar Khomeini. Ships going to the Iranian port are generally owned or freighted by Iranian companies. At time of writing the reported attack was not confirmed by independent sources.
Speaking on the overall direction of the war, a usually well-informed Iranian source contacted in Tehran says: ''All Iranian leaders share the same goal. They want Saddam (Iraqi President Saddam Hussein) out of power, but a debate is going on here on how to achieve that goal.''
Western diplomats contacted in the Iranian capital say they believe President Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi oppose the long-planned general offensive. Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini and his representative to the Supreme Defense Council, Mr. Rafsanjani, appear to support the major offensive.
''Khamenei and Mussavi,'' the diplomats continue, ''have voiced their concern about the high number of casualties this offensive would involve.''
Last Friday during his weekly sermon on the campus of Tehran University, Rafsanjani said: ''The reasons for the postponement of the general offensive are known (only) to a small group of men, among them Imam Khomeini.''
In their speeches Iranian leaders regularly castigate foreign reporters who suggest that differences of opinion in the Iranian leadership are the main cause for delays in launching this offensive.
According to a senior European diplomat interviewed in Brussels, ''The Iranian government has tried in vain during the recent months to persuade the international community to withdraw its support for the Iraqi regime. This rebuttal leaves the Iranian leadership with few options. It can accept a compromise, which is unlikely. It can take its chance and launch its offensive. It may also decide to order its Army to dig in its positions and create a neither-war-nor-peace situation.''
Among average Iranians, it is difficult to assess the feeling toward the war. The state-controlled television regularly shows crowds of veiled women and bearded men shouting, ''War, war until victory.''
Exiled Iranians who oppose the regime say those crowds are either civil servants obliged to show their obedience to the regime or relatives of Revolutionary Guards. From conversations with travelers coming from Iran, it appears that the urban, Westernized middle class is against the continuation of the war. Many wealthy families reportedly spend thousands of dollars to help their sons flee the country and escape the compulsory draft.
More traditional segments of the middle class are divided on the war issue. For example, in the bazaar community many traders who have benefited from the shortages and raging inflation favor the war. But other traders of consumer goods who are suffering from restrictions on trade are eager to see the war end.
Islamic fervor apparently remains very high in the lower classes, from which most volunteers for the front come. Western intelligence sources say that units of Revolutionary Guards are not short of new recruits. But those sources doubt the newcomers are properly trained before being sent to the battlefield.
Information on the situation on the front itself is sketchy. Iranian officials say 350,000 fighters are stationed in the southern sector of the front. This apparently indicates that, in spite of the semi-failure of its last offensive on the southern front, Tehran has not given up hope of taking the Iraqi port of Basra.
Some Western diplomats hint that Iranian fighters may try to attack on a very wide front running from the Meimak area to Sanandaj in northern Iran. If such an offensive were to succeed, the outskirts of Baghdad would be within range of Iranian artillery fire. But the diplomats point out that, as in the southern sector of the front, the Iranian Army would face Iraqi armored divisions moving along a flat plain and under the cover of the Iraqi Air Force.