Iranians go out of their way to avoid provoking the Soviet bear

Despite recent hard-line anti-Soviet statements, Iranian leaders and clergy are cautiously trying to stay in Moscow's good graces. With the country's already-troubled economy feeling the pinch of the US and European trade embargo, Iranian authorities are anxious to avoid any breach with their giant northern neighbor.

The only issue on which the Iranians have made a stand against the Russians is the price of natural gas sold to Russia through a pipeline running all the way from Iran's southern oil fields to Baku on the Caspian Sea.

Iran has insisted the Soviets pay a price about six times higher than what Moscow paid the Shah. The Russians refused and Iran turned off the supply. But in recent weeks Iranian authorities have shown interest in renewing the pricing talks despite Moscow's intransigence on the issue.

Yet in all other respects the Iranian regime has been bending almost backward to keep on good terms with the Russians.

An example of this is Iran's unwillingness to berate the Soviet Union's takeover of Afghanistan, a fellow muslim state.

Shortly before the Soviet Union began moving several divisions of troops into Afghanistan in December, the Soviet ambassador in Tehran visited Ayatollah Khomeini in Qom to inform him about the move.

The disclosure was made, remarkably enough, by the Ayatollah himself several months later. He said the envoy had told him the move was being made with the approval of the Afghanistan government.

The two most amazing aspects of the story are that the Soviets should have confided in the Iranian leader, and that the Ayatollah did not make any strong statement or protest about it at the time.

He would certainly have known that the troops were going to be used against the Muslim rebels fighting the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul.

That could have been an isolated incident and an oversight on the part of the Ayatollah, whose mind was busy then with internal problems.

But a series of other developments indicate Iranian reluctance to take on the Soviets.A few weeks after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began, a group of Afghan refugees and students accompanied by Iranian supporters descended on the Soviet Embassy to occupy it.

The students had just succeeded in burning the Soviet flag when pasdars (revolutionary guards) and police arrived on the scene to disperse the students, and redirect their energies toward the American Embassy.

The Afghans in front of the American Embassy later were not quite able to explain to journalists what they were doing there.

The journalists, including an American, asked the revolutionary guards in front of the Soviet Embassy whether they did not think the Soviet Embassy was a nest of spies also.

"There are spies in all the embassies," the guard said.

"So then, why just occupy the American Embassy? Why didn't you allow the Soviet Embassy to be occupied as well?" newsmen asked.

The revolutionary guard, of course, had no answer.

Earlier, Moscow had taken the precaution of flying home all the women and children from the embassy compound before the move in Afghanistan was made. They had foreseen just such a move in the embassy.

The Soviet ambassador, however, issued a strong warning to the Iranian government about the incident.

There was no repetition. About four weeks ago the Soviets panicked once again and issued a statement to the media saying they had received a tape of another move to occupy the embassy. The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued its own statement saying that the Soviet Embassy, along with all the other embassies in the Iranian capital, were under the protection of the Iranian government.

Since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Iranian leaders and clergymen have made statements of support for the Afghan rebels fighting the Russian troops.

"Hot air," said one young Afghan leader who came to Iran and stayed for a while trying to get material support from the Iranians. Iranian caution in dealing with the Russians was aimed clearly at getting political and economic concessions in return. Soon after the US and Europe imposed economic sanctions on Iran, the authorities in Tehran began signing a number of rapid deals with Moscow and other East bloc capitals.

The deals were aimed at kind of triangular commercial arrangement by which the East bloc states would buy some of the Western goods Iran needs and reexport to Iran by overland routes.

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