Is Iran losing fear of Soviet bear hug?

An increasingly isolated Iran is making a show of reinforcing links with the Soviet Union -- but this country still seems less excited about that prospect than Moscow.

Iran has been almost ostentatiously receptive to offers of soviet help in cushioning the effect of any escalated Western pressure over the US Embassy hostage crisis, but seems leary of an all-out political tilt toward the Kremlin.

Even in the area of commercial relations, Iran is much more likely to turn first to East European countries.

Indeed, a French radio correspondent who interviewed Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr late April 23 told the Monitor Mr. Bani-Sadr had played down the importance of Iran's apparent tilt Eastward, saying it was merely commercial. Mr. Bani-Sadr, who spent some 15 years studying in France, was also quoted as saying he did not want to cut Iran's ties with Western Europe.

The Soviets, Iranian and diplomatic sources say, have lost no time in offering to help fill any vacuum created by Western economic sanctions. As Moscow condemns US policy toward Iran, Soviet trade negotiators have been seeking multiyear contracts here in an apparent bid to reap lasting benefits at the expense of the West.

Iran seems to be playing along, but with reservations.

In what appears a deliberate exercise in nose-thumbing at the US, Iranian officials announced a pair of commercial agreements April 22 and 23 with the Soviet bloc. The first was a "draft protocol" with Moscow that apparently had been negotiated before Washington imposed economic sanctions.

The more recent accord involves increased oil sales to Ro mania at a price reportedly rejected by noncommunist customers.

Iran also announced April 23 it was opening diplomatic relations with South Yemen, a virtual Soviet satellite at the gateway to the Red Sea.

Yet senior Iranian officials, combining their country's historic fear of "Russian expansionism" with an Islamic abhorrence of communism, privately expressed reluctance to draw too close politically to the Kremlin, much less formally to align with the Soviets.

Ironically, this was pretty much the way the deposed Shah handled the Soviet Union -- offering some trade and friendship of a sort, but at arm's length.

Publicly, Iranian Finance Minister Reza Salimi has been hinting that any major tightening of Western sanctions might erode Iran's reservations over closer alignment with Moscow.

He announced an "important draft protocol for industrial and economic cooperation" with the USSR April 22, saying the details would be worked out in Moscow later this year. It was not clear how this would differ from a $3 billion trade package sealed by the Shah's governement for the years 1976 to 1981.

But the Finance Minister added that agreement also had been reached on expanded Soviet help if US sanctions got tougher. The Soviets, he said, had agreed "to transport goods to Iran via the Soviet Union" if President Carter tried to blockade the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Salimi said he also hoped an accord could be worked out for resuming gas shipments from Iranian oil fields that had been cut off earlier this year when Moscow refused demands for a five-fold price increase by the new Iran regime.

But do Iranian hints at economic rapprochement with the communist world mean that Tehran is drawing closer to Soviet-bloc countries politically, a senior foreign ministry official was asked. "No," he replied. "Commercial relations don't mean we are moving closer politically."

Other officials suggested Iran's mistrust of the Soviets made it much more likely this country would turn to East Europe before Moscow if faced with a really effective boycott by traditional nonconmmunist suppliers.

Indeed, a number of East European cargo planes recently have been sighted at Tehran Airport, and as Finance Minister Salimi was meeting Soviet representatives in Tehran earlier this month, Iran's deputy commerce minister was on a visit to Eastern Europe.

Among the reasons Iranian and Western analysts suggested for Iranian reluctance to rely too heavily on the Soviet Union were:

* Concern about Soviet territorial intentions in Iran. Some officials are worried that Moscow could at some point replay its post- World War II sponsorship of separatist movements in the Iranian provinces of Kurdistan and Azerbaijan, or pry away other provinces on Iran's periphery.

Although lost in a flood of anti-American invective, there is also concern here over Soviet action in neighboring Afghanistan.

* Reluctance on the part of Iran's rigidly Islamic regime to the idea of nuzzling up to Godless communism. Many of the Muslim hard-liners are also suspicious of secular leftists at home, and indeed forced a recent crackdown on leftist universities.

Monitor special correspondent Eric Bourne reports from Vienna:

Unsure of getting as much Soviet oil as they need in the future, East Europeans have had their eyes on Iranian oil supplies. Like the Soviets, they have had trade missions in Tehran for several weeks.

Romanian appears to be the first to have finalized a new deal. The Czechoslovakians and Bulgarians are also in the market.

Officials in Tehran announced an agreement April 23 to supply Romania 100,000 barrels of crude daily. This is roughly equal to the 5 million tons per year the go-it-alone communist country had negotiated with the Shah's government several years ago.

At one time, Romania's own oil supplies were adequate for its needs, but they are dwindling. The Iranian deal represents some 60 percent of Romania's oil imports.

Until now, Romania has paid with industrial and agricultural products. But the current price of Iranian oil is about treble that charged by the Shah's regime, and there is some question as to how Romania, with all its other hard-currency demands, can afford it.

Both Iran and Romania may have political reasons for accepting the deal.

A spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Council was quoted April 23 as saying that moves to look for increased trade ties with Eastern Europe and the third world would show sanction-minded Western governments that "the world is much wider."

A Bulgarian trade mission is currently in Tehran, looking to expand the trade ties this small Balkan country built up with the Shah's Iran despite the acute ideological differences between them.

And Iranian trade missions are in Prague and in East Berlin at this time.

Czechoslovakia was the first of the communist countries to strike an oil deal with Iran. Formulated in 1969, it was a barter deal whereby the Czechs supplied industrial plant equipment under a credit payment agreement to cover purchases of 20 million tons of oil through the 1970s.

A few years ago Czechoslovakia signed another accord with Iran -- its biggest-ever trade agreement with a noncommunist state. It included Iran's delivery of vast supplies of natural gas yearly through the turn of the century.

But these were affected when Iran cut back on the amount it sold the Soviet Union (Which, under the agreement, piped gas to Czechoslovakia) following the fall of the Shah.

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