Iran's revolutionary government has been hurling strongly worded protests at the Soviets over their invasion of Afghanistan -- but little else. An Afghan rebel leader in Tehran recently reported that, so far, Ayatollah Khomeini's regime has only provided negligible amounts of "unofficial" aid to the Muslim rebels who are using Afghan refugee camps in eastern Iran as their bases for lightning ambushes against the Soviet Army.
Afghan guerrilla factions began using Iran as their launching pad several months ago, according to rebel sources, when Soviet-directed air raids in south-western Afghanistan caused over 100,000 villagers to flee across the frontier.
In mid-February, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a leader of the Hezb-e Islam organization, considered one of the strongest Afghan rebel factions, flew from Pakistan to Tehran for private talks with President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. The newly elected President not only politely refused Hekmatyar's request that Iran break off diplomatic ties with Moscow's handpicked regime in Kabul, but news of their meeting was also kept secret from the local Iranian press.
With its own Army scattered by the revolution, Iran coud hardly prevent a Soviet hot-pursuit attack on Afghan guerrilla bases within its own borders. Nor , if the Soviets chose, could Iran stop any Russian military tanks from blasting through the 750-mile-long Soviet-Iran border and seizing vital oil fields.
But a Soviet push to the Gulf is not viewed as a real threat by Iran. A Foreign Ministry spokesman explained that scant hours before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan last December, a Moscow emissary was speeding to the holy city of Qom to notify Ayatollah Khomeini. Iran's revolutionary leader was reportedly told that "It was a necessary defensive measure to protect the USSR's southern flank and would not endanger Iran's territorial integrity."
Locked in economic battle with the US over the American hostages, the Ayatollah was in no position to complain.
A harder, pro-Afghan rebel line would also complicate Iran's own internal unrest.
The Baluchis, fierce inhabitants of the mountainous Sistan-Baluchistan region adjacent to Afghanistan, are clamoring along with the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis, Azeris, and the Kuzestan Arabs for greater local autonomy. As a Middle Eastern diplomat explained, "Bani-Sadr has good reason for not wanting a small, foreign army in a potentially rebellious province."
Strategically, the Iranian flank isn't vital to the rebels' campaign against the Soviet-bolstered regime of Babrak Karmal. The arid, sparsely covered mountains there don't offer the same protection as the higher, more rocky regions near Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, China, and the Soviet Union.
However, according Mr. Hekmatyar, small rebel units coming from Iran make sporadic hit-and-run raids on the roads leading into Herat and Farah, the two largest Soviet-guarded towns in western Afghanistan.
When asked if Iran had been arming the Muslim guerrillas who, despite the presence of perhaps up to 90,000 Soviet troops, manage to control vast expanses of the territory, Mr. Hekmatyar replied, "No, we use the Soviet guns captured from the battlefield. Iram more than anything has been a model to us."
The young, gaunt, former engineer added: "People say Afghanistan will be the Vietnam of Russia. That's not what we want. The Afghans want their country to be the Iran of Russia."
Aside from wanting to steer its faulty satellite back into orbit, Moscow has other reasons for not pulling out of the Afghanistan war.
The Kremlin reportedly fears a spread of Islamic fervor into its own Muslim-populated southern provinces. Mr. Hekmatyar claimed that last month over 30,000 Muslim Soviet Army regulars were airlifted out of the wartorn country and replaced with non-Muslim soldiers. Some Muslim troops apparently had been collaborating with the Afghan rebels.
At Bagrame Airport, the Russians' main supply air base near Kabul, four Muslim Soviet officers were executed five weeks ago for treason, Mr. Hekmatyar said, although the guerrilla chief was unable to reveal their names.