A treaty signed between the Soviet Union and Iran on Jan. 16, 1921, is very much at the center of world affairs. Under the terms of that treaty Moscow, in effect, can claim the right to intervene inside Iran if anyone else does. At the moment Iraqi troops are inside Iranian territory at several points along their substantial mutual frontier.
And Soviet propaganda is extraordinary busy now and has been since mid-January trying to build up fear in Iran of hostile US action against Iran.
The question no diplomat can avoid is whether Moscow is trying seriously to build up a case for Soviet military intervention in Iran, or, at the least, try to scare the Iranians into requesting Soviet help against the possibility of American intervention.
Unmistakable evidence of a major Soviet propaganda operation involving Iran is found in article published in Pravda on Jan. 17. That article speculated that the US had by then a ccumulated sufficient military force in the Middle East to be in a position to carry out an assault on Iran. It asserted that "this dangerous adventure can be carried out at any moment."
The Pravda article was so bald and extravagant in its tones and terms that Edmund Muskie, then secretary of state, summoned Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to the State Department that same day and lodged a complaint. State Department spokesmen called the Soviet allegations "scurrilous" and an attempt to spoil the negotiations for release of the hostages, which then were near their conclusion.
A major question raised by the campaign was whether it was merely an attempt to spoil the negotiations, or had a longer-term and more serious purpose.
Intelligence sources say that there is no sign at the moment of unusual Soviet military activities north of the Soviet border with Iran. Last fall such activities were reported. And since former Secretary Muskie's protest to Ambassador Dobrynin, the Soviet propaganda machine has soft-pedaled on the allegation of an impending US military operation against Iran. It has, however, continued to play heavily on the theme of alleged US hostility toward Iran.
One possibility is that Moscow is merely taking what advantage it can of the fact of friction between the US and Iran. Moscow has long sought to improve its relations with Iran. One view among US experts is that the Soviets are frustrated over their inability to make friends among the mullahs of Tehran and might just as well use a verbal bludgeon to try to shock them into looking in a northern direction for friends.
But there is that treaty. Article 6 reads:
"The high contracting parties agree that in case any third countries intend to pursue a policy of transgression in Persian territory, or to make Persian territory a base for military attack against Russia, and if there by a danger threatens the frontier of Soviet Russia, or its federated associates, and if the Persian government, after having been notified by the Soviet government shall have the right to send its army into Persia in order to take the necessary military steps in its own defense."
This treaty was in force during World War II. The intrusion of Soviet, American, and British troops in Iran was the result of an agreement among the three. It was also the basis on which Washington and London called on Moscow to withdraw its troops from the northern part of Iran after British and US troops had first been withdrawn. A further feature of the treaty requires Soviet troops to leave "as soon as such danger is removed."
There are various possible interpretations of the current Soviet propaganda campaign. One may well be to discourage the US from going fast or far with current plans for a Rapid Deployment Force for the Middle East. The campaign could be nothing more than a message to Washington to remember that the Soviets claim an interest in Iran and have a treaty basis for goin in.
The 1921 treaty was prompted by the dominant British position in the area then known as Persia. Moscow wanted the British out, and agreed on their own withdrawal from the northern provinces of Persia on condition that others also would get out.
Iran has repudiated Article 6 of the 1921 treaty, but Moscow has rejected the repudiation and takes the position that the treaty can not be abrogated unilaterally. Russian-Persian relations over nearly 200 years have been marked by periodic Russian pressure, into northern Persia and subsequent withdrawal, depending on circumstances. They come in when Persia, or Iran, is weak.
Most experts seem to agree that in this case, as so often with Soviet deplomacy, and propaganda, the Soviets saw an opportunity to exploit a situation -- and are doing so.
The hostage crisis was such an opportunity. The serious questio n for Washington is how best to counter the Moscow campaign.