WASHINGTON -- Iran, the silent partner of the anti-Iraq coalition, still harbors the goal of becoming the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, U.S. officials say, a goal that poses risks for future regional stability even if Iraq is curbed.
Right now, Iran is profiting from the gulf crisis, drawing an estimated $1 billion more a month from higher oil prices, and drawing from the West and Arab states opposed to Iraq more interest in improving relations.
But although they generally want to see Iraq forced from Kuwait and Saddam Hussein pushed from office, Iranians worry about the outcome of the crisis, say U.S. specialists.
They fear, on the one hand, a long-term U.S. presence in the region; and on the other, a still-strong Iraq determined to settle scores.
Devastated by its eight-year war with Iraq and subsequent earthquakes, Iran is expected to sit out any conflict that erupts and in fact fears being dragged in.
Although part of Iran's increased oil revenue is being used to rebuild its weakened, disorganized and ill-trained military, it will be two to three years before Iran develops a credible force, officials say.
Analysts are less sure how Iran would act if Israel entered the conflict, but they suspect that, along with Syria, Iran would "finesse the issue," seeking to maintain its Moslem credentials while remaining opposed to Iraq.
This quiet role in support of the coalition arrayed against Iraq has been enormously helpful to the West in enforcing the United Nations sanctions and persuading Mr. Hussein that he is surrounded by unfriendly forces.
But over the long term, officials say, Iran harbors ambitions of being the dominant force in the Persian Gulf. In addition, its population is expected to double in 20 years.
Iranian hostility to the United States was a key reason for U.S. efforts to forge a relationship with Iraq.
While the United States aims to contain Iraq's aggressive potential, and particularly its nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability, some analysts argue that a totally emasculated Iraq, unable to defend itself, would leave a power vacuum in the region that a strengthened Iran could fill.