THE mediocre showing posted by the Iranian leader in presidential elections earlier this month may further destabilize both the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, and poses tough new challenges for the Clinton administration, Western diplomats here say.
When President Hashemi Rafsanjani pulled 63 percent of the vote in the June 11 contest, far short of the mandate many had predicted he would receive, his moderate supporters feared for his program of political and economic liberalization.
But many observers here argue the more immediate danger is that Mr. Rafsanjani's tentative overtures to the West will be replaced by the aggressive xenophobia of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
With inflation as high as 50 percent, unemployment rising, and government corruption rampant at the end of his first four-year term, Rafsanjani may no longer be able to focus on seeking improved ties with the West.
Consequently, diplomats say, Rajsanjani's radical challengers will be encouraged to push their own anti-Western initiatives without the president's blessing.
"It's always been a characteristic of Iranian foreign policy to kiss you on the cheek and then kick you in the shin," says one prominent diplomat here.
"There are too many centers of power here. The left hand often does not know what the right hand is doing. There are radical sectors that support terrorism without the authorization of the government."
Iran has been isolated since the 1979 revolution, which brought Khomeini to power and heralded an era of Islamic puritanism. Tehran's support for Islamic fundamentalist movements throughout the Middle East has perpetuated that alienation.
Analysts familiar with Iran believe Rafsanjani has opposed efforts by the more radical religious leaders, called mullahs, to export the Islamic revolution. He has had a subtle moderating influence on foreign policy, they note.
"Rafsanjani doesn't need this stuff," said one embassy source of Iran's practice of bankrolling Islamic insurgent movements abroad. "Most of it goes on without his knowledge."
The president had been hoping to parlay his reputation as a moderate pragmatist into increased political and commercial contacts with the West. He has quietly made overtures to Washington and European capitals.
His appeal, however, is going unheard.
The Clintion administration, as recently as June 8, urged its European allies to cut their military and financial links with Tehran.
The administration has adopted a policy of "dual containment," which seeks to impose equal economic and military isolation on both Iran and Iraq to keep either from gaining dominance.
The policy breaks with the Reagan and Bush approach of favoring one state over the other.
Diplomats in the region express concern that Rafsanjani's failure to build economic bridges to the West will embolden foreign policy hard-liners, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to continue Tehran's rearmament program. Iran, whose military was vastly depleted during the eight-year war with Iraq, has reportedly purchased three submarines from Russia in recent months and may also be at work on nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs.
They also worry that radical mullahs, who run wealthy charitable foundations that are often used as covers to fund paramilitary activity, will increase their support for Muslim extremist movements in the Middle East, such as Hamas in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front.
But pressure to export the Islamic revolution may be the least of Rafsanjani's foreign policy worries.
"He's got potentially hostile neighbors on all frontiers," a Western diplomat says. "He doesn't have a single border he can be totally confident of."
As long as Iran perceives that its national security is threatened, it will continue its armament program, experts say. Iran shares a 700 mile-long border on its Western flank with archrival Iraq, against whom it fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988. Both sides employ proxies to strike against targets deep inside the other's territory.
At a recent news conference, Defense Minister Akbar Torkan said: "The Iraqi regime is sick. There is no chance of improving relations [with Baghdad]."
Tehran also complains that the presence of US military forces in the Persian Gulf, which are there to deter Iraqi aggression, could easily be used against Iran.
But the biggest threat to regional stability may come from Iran's increasingly heated competition with Turkey for supremacy in the Muslim republics of former Soviet Central Asia.
Turkey has succeeded in gaining influence in newly independent Azerbaijan. Ethnic Azeris, who are Turkish speakers, make up almost 40 percent of Iran's population, and the government can ill afford to watch its rival tighten its grip on the loyalty of a key population group.
"The next major conflict in this area will be between Iran and Turkey," predicts one well-informed foreign analyst in Tehran.
The mullahs also resent Turkey's secular political traditions and its membership in NATO.
"The trouble with Iran's foreign policy is that there are now 10 or 20 countries in the world whose primary enemy is Iran," a diplomat says. "That's just not going to go away."