BEHIND the arguments about secret arms shipments to Iran, we are missing something far more important, namely Iran itself. After Fidel Castro's coming to power in Cuba, the loss of Iran was the United States' most significant geopolitical setback. Iran's geographical location between the Soviet Union, the Middle East, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in addition to its human, territorial, and oil resources, made that country one of the indispensable and irreplaceable partners of the US. Second, the Iranian revolution - or rather counterrevolution - headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini caused, apart from the changes at home, a political landslide in that entire region to which Iran served as a kind of keystone; the revolution set off a chain reaction that is still continuing and has far-reaching international repercussions.
American hostages were seized, and the Carter administration, virtually paralyzed by that, stopped functioning normally on the international arena. The Soviet Union immediately took advantage of it: It is hard to imagine that in a different situation it would dare to take action of international aggression unprecedented in post-Stalin history like the Afghanistan occupation, which occurred less than two months after the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran.
Even Iraq grew emboldened, though its calculations proved to be less accurate than the Soviet Union's: It thought that political chaos and the disintegration of the armed forces, loyal to the banished Shah, made Iran incapable of resistance. Iraq decided to settle old territorial disputes between two countries by means of a quick war. The war has already taken hundreds of thousands of lives, and there is no end in sight. In its turn, this war led to rappprochement among the most extremist Muslim regimes - of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, of President Hafez Assad in Syria, and of Col. Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, to the formation of the Tehran-Damascus-Tripoli axis. On the other hand, the war destabilized moderate regimes, intensifying in them religious fundamentalism and political radicalism: President Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated, President Jaafar Nimeiri of Sudan was overthrown - both of a pro-Western orientation. Finally, a new character has appeared on Lebanon's already overcrowded political scene, pushing aside the others - the Shiite terrorists, loyal to Iranian ayatollahs, who became Middle Eastern kamakazes and acted no less successfully than their predecessors, allies, and rivals, the Palestinian terrorists. The Iranian revolution proved to be the pebble that, as the saying goes, started the avalanche. Or, in political terminology, this is the ``domino theory'' in action.
Besides, if the behind-the-scenes role of the Soviet Union in this explosive region can only be surmised, then its possible and probable actions here in the future may be predicted from its past.
For example, in the spring of 1929, Red Army troops on orders from Stalin crossed the Afghan border and advanced toward Kabul. Stalin had hoped to put together a pro-Soviet Afghan government, using local extremists, but when this failed, he ordered the Soviet troops to withdraw. A half century later, with its Afghan blitzkrieg in late December 1979, the Kremlin took revenge for its failure in Afghanistan in the late '20s.
This is to stress that Moscow knows how to wait and never forgets about its imperial schemes. But Russia's Iranian stakes are both higher and older than the Afghan ones.
In the early 19th century Iranian-Russian wars broke out repeatedly, and in 1829, an attack on the Russian Embassy in Tehran by a raging mob of Muslim fanatics killed Alexander Griboyedov, the brilliant poet and Russian ambassador to Tehran, who zealously pursued the colonialist policy of the czarist government.
Soon after the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviet-Iranian treaty was ratified in 1921 granting Moscow a right to move its troops into Iran in case a situation hostile to the USSR developed. This treaty is still in force, and once, in August 1941, Stalin took advantage of it and sent into northern Iran Soviet troops, which were withdrawn only after World War II under heavy pressure from Western countries.
But in 1941, along with the Red Army, Soviet agents were sent into neighboring Iran for subversive activities. Among them was the 18-year-old son of a pious Shiite trader in Nakhichevan, a town on the Iranian border. He was Geidar Aliyev. Aliyev's familiarity with Muslim customs and his fluency in Middle Eastern languages helped when he was a Soviet spy in Iran and also much later, when in his native republic of Azerbaijan he headed the secret police and then became its party boss. It also comes in handy now, in Moscow, where he is a Politburo member, vice-premier, and overseer of Soviet policy in the Middle East. It was he who went several times on official and unofficial visits to Syria and from there, according to reliable sources, went recently with a secret mission to Iran - in order, as it is said, to neutralize the results of Robert McFarlane's trip there and to encourage the anti-US faction among the leaders.
In any case, this year Soviet-Iranian relations entered a new stage: Recently, one of the ministers of the Khomeini government came to Moscow, and the Soviet minister visited Tehran; Iran resumed exports of natural gas to the Soviet Union in exchange for arms; and in Soviet Azerbaijan, along the Iranian border, the number of Soviet divisions armed with the latest in military technology is growing. Last year Gen. Mikhail Zaitsev, one of the ablest Soviet officers, formerly the chief of staff of Soviet forces in East Germany, was named regional commander. Furthermore, Mikhail Gorbachev himself, during his recent trip to the Far East, said repeatedly and unequivocally that the USSR is not only a European but also an Asian country, and that it is precisely in Asia that its strategic interests are.
Seven years ago, the US lost Iran. Now it may lose Iran for the second time - to the Soviet Union, which means losing it once and for all.
Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, both Russian-born, are a husband-wife team of historians and journalists.