After hostages, Iran still will be problem for US; Iran's position on Gulf means US can't ignore it

The struggle in Iran will go on with continuing demands on US patience and diplomacy, even when -- and if -- the American hostages are released. The hard fact is that the United States cannot afford to wash its hands of Iran. That country's key position on the geopolitical chessboard puts it at the mercy of almost any world power struggle.

As in the days of the czars and, more recently, of Stalin, Iran is the only piece of real estate blocking Russian expansion to the warm waters of the Gulf.

It is on the flank of the Indian subcontinent, home of such a huge chunk of mankind. And in the other direction, Iran abuts Turkey, the southeastern flank of the Atlantic alliance and guardian of the Dardanelles. Iran cannot be divorced, therefore, from overall Western planning for the security of Europe in the face of the Soviet threat.

In this last quarter of the 20th century, it is Iran's position on the gulf that once again makes it the troubled eye in an already raging storm that threatens much of the globe. The coastline on both sides of the Gulf has a greater and more explosive political importance than ever before.

The reason? Concentrated on those shores is the single biggest source of the oil on which the industrialized noncommunist world depends. Before the end of the century, even the communist world is likely to look to some of that Gulf oil for its survival.

It is right there that Iran sits -- in the full throes of its continuing, unresolved, and troubled revolution; locked in war with Arab Iraq across one of history's great cultural divides; driven by a throbbing and reassertive Islam in its unique Shia Muslim manifestation; and always a tempting prey (should it appear on the edge of disintegration) to a Russian imperialism that has coveted it for centuries.

Persia -- as Iran was known in the Western world for most of its history -- has learned skillfully to play one outside power off against another to ensure its own national and cultural survival.

During the era of European empires, Persian shahs were caught between the pressures of the Russians and the British. They used one to counterbalance the other.* The British have gone, but the Russians are still there.* And the counterbalance to the Russians today is the US.

Iranian recognition of that is implicit in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's often overlooked refusal to align revolutionary Iran in any way with the Soviet Union during the wrangling with the US over the hostages. To the Ayatollah, the USSR is another "Satan" in the same camp as the US -- even of one less responsible than the US for the corruption of Persian religion and integrity identified with the reign of the Pahlavi Shah ousted two years ago.

Often overlooked, too, are the anathemas on Moscow pronounced by the Ayatollah since the Soviet military intervention in neighboring Afghanistan a year ago.

Can a release of the hostages then clear the way for revolutionary Iran to seek rapprochement with the US to counter the Soviet threat?

Today, that threat is not simply from the north and the shores of the Caspian Sea as in the days of the czars and of Stalin. Since Leonid Brezhnev sent his troops at Christmas 1979 in an outflanking move over the Hindu Kush, the Soviets are in a position to apply direct military pressure on Iran from the east, from along the entire expanse of the Afghan border, sweeping southward to Baluchistan.

Yet despite this increased Soviet threat, the players in the unfinished drama within revolutionary Iran are unlikely to rush to shake hands, link arms, or (more extravagantly) embrace the evident American counterweight.* The unfinished business of the revolution and the unresolved struggle for ultimate and definitive control of post-shah Iran make that highly improbable.

The clerical fundamentalists and their men (notably Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai) seem on top at the moment. But maneuvering or scheming to shove them aside are: the secular and "liberal" revolutionaries symbolized by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr; and, from the other side, the radical left -- the pro-Moscow and outwardly pro-Khomeini orthodox communist Tudeh Party, the Marxist Fedayeen, and the Islamic leftist Mujahideen.

If the classical pattern of revolution unfolds in Iran, there is a third potential source of danger for the currently dominant fundamentalists. That is the emergence of an Iranian Cromwell or Bonaparte who might come forward triumphantly to restore order once further revolutionary turmoil was seen at the popular level to be more destructive than constructive.

Prime Minister Rajai's caution in negotiating the hostage release suggests how damaging politically any charge of "sellout" or of being "soft on America" still is -- two years after the revolution. Whoever is in charge in Iran in the months, perhaps years ahead, will not want to lay himself open to any such charge.

The safer course will seem to lie in continuing to be "beastly" to a US represented as "corrupting" and "satanic."

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