Moscow — A time bomb is ticking across the Soviet Union's southern border in Iran, and it could eventually prove as worrisome for the men in the Kremlin as the open-ended crisis in Poland.
Some foreign analysts breathed a brief sigh of relief over the Polish crisis late June 28, with the announcement here that Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko would be going to Warsaw for talks early in July.
No one suggested that the Soviets were closing any potential options in dealing with the Polish unrest. No one, for that matter, claimed any reliable idea of just what the Soviets were or were not planning to do.
But the Kremlin was seen as unlikely to embark on any major shift in Polish strategy until the Gromyko mission was over.
Some foreign analysts added that the choice of longtime professional diplomat Gromyko or the mission -- rather than, for instance, senior Soviet party ideologue Mikhail Suslov -- indicated that the trip might be intended as much for factfindling as for delivery of further Soviet criticism to the Poles.
The Soviets' "Iran problem" seems far less immediate than the trouble in Poland but could turn out to be equally serious, in the view of more than a few foreign diplomats here.
The problem, in a word, is chaos, the kind of thing likely to fuel the Soviets' traditional concern over "encirclement" by hostile powers. This would seem especially true at present.
The new US administration is making noises about selling arms to China, the Soviets' southeastern neighbor and rival, and to Pakistan, next to Iran.
The Kremlin also has an estimated 85,000 troops bogged down in Afghanistan, between Pakistan and Iran. The Soviets may not be losing their 18-month-old war with Muslim rebels there, but surely they aren't winning it either.
Gazing southward at the intesifying, and ever more violent, power struggle in Iran, the Soviets have so far seemed to react with the rhetorical equivalent of holding their breath.
Typical was the Soviet news media's initial coverage of the June 28 bomb attck that killed Ayotollah Muhammad Beheshti, Iran's single most powerful fundamentalist Islamic leader after Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and of a June 27 explosion that had wounded another prominent Islamic politician, Hojatolislam Ali Khameini, the spiritual leader of Tehran.
The Soviets apparently couldn't resist suggesting the US was somehow involved , but otherwise they stuck to the facts.
In their public commentary over recent months, the Soviets generally have been careful not to attack any Iranian force except those clearly on the sidelines: supporters of the late Shah, exiled resistance leader Shahpour Bakhtiar, or former Premier Mehdi Bazargan.
Even when fundamentalist pressure shut down the newspaper of Iran's pro-Moscow Tudeh (communist) Party, the news came in one brief and restrained paragraph here.
Diplomats here have assumed all along that the Kremlin might react in some more forceful manner, however, should outright civil strife grip Iran or should the aging Ayatollah Khomeini pass on. Both possibilities are far more than theoretical.
A senior Soviet official told this reporter earlier in the year that the question of Soviet "reaction" was premature and argued that "until now, all conflict situations in Iran have been due to the American presence, not the Soviets."
But he added, "It is important for us to have on our borders a stable, strong state . . . that supports good relations with us."
Finding themselves shoulder to shoulder with an unstable and weak (if also pro-Soviet) state named Afghanistan in late 1979, the Kremlin ordered in its troops.
Soviet soliders helped set up short-lived Azerbaijani and Kurdish republics in northern Iran after World War II.
Moreover, Moscow has never accepted Iran's unilateral 1979 abrogation of a clause in a 1921 friendship pact allowing Soviet troops to enter Iran if Soviet interests are threatened by outside forces there.
Still, most foreign analysts here also point out that, much more than in the case of Afghanistan, Soviet military activity in Iran could risk some form of US retaliation. A new, more assertive team is now in the White House. Iran, too, has oil and it borders the Gulf through which a large portion of Arab oil exports are shipped.
Until recently one popular theory among Mideast experts was that the eruption of utterly unbridled chaos in Iran might prod the superpowers to get together behind someone capable of restoring a semblance of stability.
Although that possibility cannot be excluded, the deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow aren't likely to make such an accord very easy.