WHEN it comes to the Persian Gulf, there seems to be no end of trouble. Two years ago the Bush administration had to neutralize one Gulf aggressor, Iraq. Now the Clinton administration may have its own to deal with - a suddenly resurgent Iran.
"One of the recurring ironies is that as soon as we fix up one security threat in the Gulf we face another one," says Georgetown University Arab studies professor Michael Hudson.
"At the moment, the new administration has every reason to be concerned about where Iran is going," he says.
Iran has embarked on a major military buildup and is aggressively exporting Islamic fundamentalism. These two challenges have dashed hopes in the West for greater moderation in Iran, hopes created after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and after Tehran used its influence in 1991 to secure the release of Western hostages in Lebanon.
"This is a state which now has a much more pragmatic Islamic government but which is not necessarily more moderate," says Anthony Cordesman, a Georgetown University professor of national security studies.
A militant Iran is only one of the problems President-elect Clinton will have to deal with in the Gulf.
The difficult task of creating adequate security arrangements in the whole region, which is the source of 60 percent of the world's oil, will confront Mr. Clinton as it did President Bush.
Clinton will also have to continue the policy of leaning hard on Iraq to adhere to Gulf-war cease-fire resolutions, but not so hard that Iraq disintegrates.
During 1990 and 1991, the United States approved $60 million in sales of high-tech equipment to Iran that had both civilian and military applications. Burned by its support of Iraq's arms buildup in the late 1980's, the US is now seeking to orchestrate an embargo on the most dangerous dual-use technology to Iran.
The US's biggest worry is an estimated five-year, $10 billion arms buildup that Iran started in 1991. The figure is far less than the $70 billion Iraq spent on arms during the 1980s, but with weapons from the former Soviet Union selling at fire-sale prices, Iran's purchasing power is far greater.
Iran is buying first-line Soviet strike and air-defense fighters, surface-to-air missiles, tanks, and, most recently, a submarine. It is also busy rebuilding air-defense systems and command-and-control networks destroyed during the Iran-Iraq war.
"At a time when Iran is putting serious constraints on its domestic economy, it is putting serious resources into foreign-arms purchases," Mr. Cordesman says.
"What they are looking for is some kind of parity with Iraq," he adds. "Iran may not be strong enough to invade its neighbors, but it will be strong enough so that no Gulf state would feel free to challenge it on a wide range of policy issues."
One such issue is oil prices. The Arab states across the Gulf have adopted high production quotas to keep world prices low. Recalling Iraq's earlier dispute with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, Iran wants higher prices to generate the revenue to pay for economic reconstruction and arms purchases. And the US remains highly dependent on Gulf oil.
Also of concern to the US is Iran's program to develop nuclear weapons, which experts say could bear fruit by the end of the decade.
Iran also threatens another key US interest in the region, the Middle East peace process. Iranian-controlled Hizbullah forces in southern Lebanon have attacked Israel to disrupt peace talks, even as Tehran has backed the radical Palestinian Islamic group Hamas, which opposes Palestinian participation in the talks.
Dealing with Iran is complicated because there are, in effect, two Irans to worry about.
One is a regional political and military power that seeks dominant influence in the Gulf - a task made easier by the defeat of its archadversary, Iraq, during the Gulf war. The other Iran is a regional ideological power that is seeking to spread militant Islam outside its borders.
One field ripe for harvest is the newly independent Muslim states of Central Asia, where Iran has dispatched religious teachers and built mosques. Another target is Islamic Africa, where Iran is seeking to create a chain of Islamic-controlled states extending from Sudan through Algeria and possibly Morocco, according to US, Israeli, and Iranian opposition sources.
The biggest target now is Egypt, where Iranian-trained militants have launched terrorist attacks against government buildings and tourists. The purpose is to discredit the government and to weaken Egypt, which is a historic contender with Iran for influence in the Gulf region.
"Sudan is the natural strategic depth of Egypt," notes Egyptian journalist Mohammed Wahby, referring to Egypt's immediate southern neighbor. "Iran has now infiltrated Egypt."
In assessing the Iranian threat, US analysts take some solice in the hope that Tehran, which is eager to gain access to Western economic credits, will not overplay its hand.
"The Iranians are quite astute," Professor Hudson says. "They do not want to go so far so fast as to jeopardize normal economic relations with Western countries."