WASHINGTON -- A resurgent Iran, with nuclear ambitions, is sending shivers through the Persian Gulf now that its former counterweight, Iraq, has been effectively undone.
This gives an added reason to those who want to hasten Saddam Hussein's downfall and replace him with a friendlier regime that could restore the old power balance.
While it secured release of U.S. hostages and improved political relations with Persian Gulf Arabs, fundamentalist Shiite Iran continues to be viewed with suspicion and worry throughout the region.
"It remains an enigma and a troublemaker," said an Arab diplomat.
And with Iraq's offensive capacity destroyed, no regional power is strong enough to balance Iran's ambition to dominate the Persian Gulf, according to analysts and diplomats.
The result is continued instability in the region, further aggravated by fears that Mr. Hussein might survive and one day shake off international constraints to the point of again becoming a regional aggressor. This gives other nations in the region two countries to worry about.
Gen. James Clapper, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that Iran could achieve a nuclear weapons capability in a few years or by the end of the decade.
Iraq would also eventually regain its military power, he indicated. War between Iran and Iraq is a "distinct possibility," he said.
But he appeared to caution against thinking that this rivalry would leave other states in the region unscathed, as it largely did during the long Iran-Iraq war.
"The renewal of warfare in the gulf would once again threaten world oil supplies. The Arab states of the gulf will require outside assistance to successfully defend against an invasion by their larger neighbors."
A diplomat from a moderate Persian Gulf state summed up what he called the region's dilemma: Iraq has been eliminated for the time being as a major power to balance an aggressive Iran, which is bent on a military buildup. But Mr. Hussein remains a major long-term threat. "There is no guarantee that with Saddam in power that [Iraq] would not embark on another adventure."
Gulf nervousness is bound to increase as Iran flexes its muscle over oil prices. "It's a built-in conflict," says William Quandt of the Brookings Institution, although he said that Saudi Arabia would go "some distance" to maintain non-hostile relations with Iran.
Fear of Iran's ambitions is one reason given for Saudi interest in covert moves to get rid of Mr. Hussein, to usher in a more moderate regime.
Another is worry over Mr. Hussein's resilience and a weakening of world resolve to contain him, a concern shared by the U.S. intelligence services.
"Although Saddam Hussein's ability in the next several years to threaten the stability of the gulf region and the world's oil supply has been crippled, Baghdad continues to pose a major problem," Robert M. Gates, director of central intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Iraq's nuclear weapons program could be rebuilt in only a few years, he noted. "If U.N. sanctions were relaxed, Iraq could produce modest quantities of chemical agents almost immediately." In addition, he said, "the Iraqis could produce BW [biological weapons] materials in a matter of weeks of their decision to do so."
The Bush administration has been wrestling with how to get rid of Mr. Hussein, so far without success. He has both an "awesome array" of military and intelligence protection but also a remarkable propensity for survival, a U.S. official notes.
"He would be at greatest risk from disgruntled members of the security services," this official said. He might not react quickly enough to "critical domestic developments." But of his opponents among Kurds, Shiites and disgruntled Baath Party members, none has the national stature to overthrow him.
An idea floated recently of a large covert operation backed by allied air power is fraught with problems, according to skeptics inside and outside the Bush administration.
It would fail to draw the international coalition that supported Desert Storm, undercutting U.S. credibility at the United Nations. Exactly who would replace Mr. Hussein is unclear, and such a move could, some analysts say, lead to just the kind of dismemberment of Iraq that the United States sought to avoid last year.
In an election year, adds a senior administration critic, it would be a political "negative" because "it would remind people that we didn't quite get the job done when we were over there before."
But even opponents of using the U.S. military to help overthrow Mr. Hussein argue that a military option should be kept in reserve to enforce the terms of the sanctions and the dismantling of his weapons of mass destruction.
In prospect during the coming months, officials say, is a stepped-up inspection program by U.N. teams involving the destruction not just of weapons but also of the facilities, including buildings, used to produce them.