In the chess game of Middle Eastern politics the Kremlin may well have outwitted Washington. The next move may be a Soviet veto of a UN resolution for sanctions against Iran. Such a step would leave the Soviet Union not only in command of Afghanistan but in favor with the Iranians, who are obsessed with anger over past American support of the Shah. It would also leave it prepared militarily and politically to take over in Iran if and when that country collapsed into chaos and pro-Soviet factions invited the Russians in. The United States would emerge with only a liability -- alliance with Pakistan, a shaky "support" that would have to be defended -- and the dread choice of threatening a third world war in defense of an Iran that might not ask its aid.
If this is the Soviet game, it must have been devised at the time when the US proposed sanctions against Iran. Iran seemed to be moving toward anarchy. Afghanistan was already on the brink of civil war.
American forces were stationed in the Indian Ocean. The voting of UN sanctions, the Soviets might have reasoned, could prompt the Iranian students holding American hostages to take drastic and irresponsible action against them, causing US forces to intervene in a situation that could become an IranIAN civil war. To the Kremlin it must have seemed a powder keg.
By moving into Afghanistan, the Russians sealed off that country and placed a Soviet force in position to forestall American moves if the Iran keg exploded. The Kremlin evidently felt that US economic retaliation was worth the risk and it could exercise its veto against UN action.
The Soviet Union then, by vetoing UN sanctions against Iran, could simultaneously fire the Ayatollah Khomeini's obsession with the United States as enemy and win favor with his followers. The Russians would appear to be defenders of the Iranian revolution against "imperialism." Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Vinogradov may have carried a Russian pledge to veto sanctions when he visited the ayatollah on the eve of the move into Afghanistan.
Should chaos come in Iran, Soviet forces could move in instantly from their positions on the Afghan border as well as from Soviet Azerbaijan in the north.
If this is the Soviet strategy, Washingtion could defer the discussion of sanctions in the United Nations and consider instead the proposal brought back from Tehran by UN Secretary Waldheim to negotiate for an international tribunal on the crimes of the Shah in exchange for release of the hostages. Such a postponement and reconsideration could defuse the dangerous situation.