The Soviet Union is proving a tough foe in its first diplomatic skirmish with the Reagan administration, yet it seems leery of a major quarrel with the new President.
Publicly, the Soviets are projecting suspicion -- but not yet outright enmity -- toward the reputed hard-liner in the White House.
Some Moscow analysts are predicting a relatively tranquil period of mutual testing by the Kremlin and Mr. Reagan for at least the coming weeks, barring a jolt from Poland or elsewhare in the international arena.
The official Soviet media, protagonists in what is technically the first diplomatic spat between Moscow and Mr. Reagan, have, in effect, been thumbing their collective nose at the new administration. The media have persisted in suggesting US bad faith in the hostage-release accord with Iran, despite a US protest Jan. 23.
Still, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda took a relatively restrained stand in comments Jan. 25 on Mr. Reagan's inaugural address. The daily appeared content to deliver an implied warning to the Reagan team by lambasting alleged "anti- Soviet military hysteria" on the part of the departed Carter administration.
The gist of the commentary was that the nascent Reagan administration had not yet earned the invective hurled regularly at Mr. Carter in recent weeks; that the new President was not locked into a specific policy toward Moscow; that the Kremlin would be watching him closely.
The Soviets appeared, meanwhile, to be using the issue of Moscow media sniping at the hostage-release accord wth Iran to test the new administration's reactions.
Western diplomats here stressed that the dispute did not seem to have the makings of a genuine crisis. They displayed more anger than long-range concern over the Soviet media reports, which included a Jan. 22 suggestion that the CIA was "brainwashing" the released American captives into critizing Iran.
One diplomat fumed privately: "These reports are simply proof of the Soviet Union's unwillingness or inability to act responsibly as a mature world power." Other Western analysts noted the media campaign was consistent with Moscow's earlier efforts to turn the US-Iranian crisis to its own short-term advantage.
Yet the determination with which the Soviet Union has pursued the anti-US allegations was viewed here as at least partly due to a desire to probe the responses of the new US administration.
An infuriated Carter administration protested reports in the Moscow media that the US might be readying "armed aggression" against Iran during the final stages of the hostage-release negotiations. In the days that followed, the Soviet s seemed to have dropped that particular idea, but did pointedly refer to the hostages after their release as diplomats detained "on charges of espionage."
Allied diplomats said the US Embassy had received word from the Reagan administration by early Jan. 22 to deliver a fresh protest via the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. With uncanny timing, the Soviet news agency Tass added the allegations of CIA "brainwashing" later that day, before the message had been delivered.
The protest was relayed Jan. 23. By this writing (Jan. 25), it appeared clear the message had not done much good.
"An anti-Iranian campaign is mounting these days in the United States," Pravda said. While laying principal blame on "none other than former President Carter," the commentary added:
"American aircraft carriers so far remain in immediate proximity to Iranian shores, and there is no informatio n that they are both to be recalled from there."