What ever happened to Iran? Americans may have forgotten about it since the hostage crisis passed, but the Russians clearly have not. Their continuing interest and growing involvement in Iran are setting the stage for major Soviet opportunities in the not-too-distant future, with ominous implications for the West.
US interests are still deeply engaged in Iran. Iran continues to sit beside the Gulf, source of the overwhelming bulk of the oil which enters the global market. It continues to be the most populous country in the region, to have long borders with Turkey and Pakistan, and to be the largest land mass blocking age-old Soviet ambitions to reach warm waters. Iran also continues to threaten self-destruction, whether from the debilitating war thrust on it by Iraq or from the turmoil of incomplete revolution.
With the shift in the tide of battle, Western interest in Iran's fate has been renewed to the point of concern about the potential resurgence of Khomeiniism and the anxieties of America's oil-state partners on the other side of the Gulf. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's recent visit to the Gulf underlined this issue, as his hosts expressed worry about the export of the Iranian revolution. Weinberger himself continued to stress the threat from the Soviet Union -- and he got it more right than did his interlocutors, but for the wrong reasons. The Soviet Union does pose a grave threat to Iran and the whole Gulf region, but less because of its military potential than for the chance it may soon have to exploit Iran politically.
US Gulf strategy is geared to having a Rapid Deployment Force, plus access to local bases and willing allies, primarily for the purpose of exacting a military price for a Soviet attack southward to the valuable oil fields in Khuzistan and the critical Strait of Hormuz. The world may indeed wake one morning in the next couple of years to find that Moscow has extended its influence to the limits of Peter the Great's wildest dreams.
But it is unlikely that a single shot would be fired by the Soviet Union - or would need to be. For while the United States focuses on military contingencies and ponders the value of a dismembered Iran, the Soviets are positioning themselves to pick up the diplomatic pieces of American indifference to Iran's situation and the political pieces of the next round of revolution.
The US haggles with Iran over claims settlements and considers whether to upgrade its relations with Iraq, but the Soviets and their allies are buying Iranian oil and gas and developing their economic ties. The US watches from the sidelines as the political struggle mounts in Iran, but the Soviets are actively developing contacts and obligations for the future.
Who will succeed Ayatollah Khomeini? There is strong likelihood that, whoever gains effective power in Iran, there will be temptation to look northward, not only for a counterweight to what many Iranians perceive as a threat from the US but also to keep the country together.
To be sure, coming under Soviet sway would not be in Iran's long-term interest: it has hadenough centuries of contending with the ambitions of great powers to resist falling easily into the Soviet embrace. But in the swirl of struggle to consolidate power, a new group could be hard-pressed to accept major support from the Soviet Union, especially if Moscow continues to do its homework well.
For Western planners, the real nightmare therefore is not that Soviet divisions will one day come streaming southward, but that Soviet diplomats, technicians, and ''advisers'' will become ensconced in Tehran and points south, including Khuzistan. Overnight, Iran could become the regional buffer state, replacing the centuries-old role of Afghanistan, now suffering Soviet invasion. Moscow has certainly been reaching for this outcome, as in its proposals for East-West agreement on the stability of the Gulf -- i.e. trying, so far unsuccessfully, to deal itself into diplomacy in what has been largely the West's area of activity.
What could be done after this happened? Very little. US military preparations would be for naught against a peaceful Soviet domination of Iran. If anything is to be done, therefore, it must be done now, and should consist of five elements:
* Understand that Khomeini and his ilk will not last forever, and that outside nations which now refrain from gratuitous hostility toward Iran will be better positioned to develop productive relations with his successors. Furthermore, a breakup of Iran would only lead to greater regional instability, as this nationalist people fought against efforts at dismemberment from whatever source. Iraqi-Western seizure of Khuzistan is no prescription for stability, whether in Iran or in neighboring countries like Pakistan or even Turkey.
* Warn the Soviets clearly that their domination of Iran, by whatever means, would be unacceptable. Indeed, the resulting strategic threat to the West would dwarf what is now happening in Poland, and would derail any effort to preserve tolerable East-West relations, including arms control. This warning should be underlined with the Rapid Deployment Force and ancillary efforts, not asa palpable defensive strategy but as tangible evidence of US commitment. This also means not overemphasizing the Soviet military threat and US responses to it beyond the point of local political tolerance elsewhere in the Gulf, as the US is now risking.
* Reassert President Carter's unprecedented commitment in his 1980 State of the Union message, that ''we have no basic quarrel with the nation, the revolution, or the people of Iran . . . (and following the release of the hostages) we are prepared to work with the government of Iran to develop a new and mutually beneficial relationship.'' At the same time, the US should remain studiously neutral in the war with Iraq and give up daydreams about playing an ''Iraqi card'' in the Gulf -- especially with Baghdad's potential for instability.
* Resist the temptation to believe that Khomeiniism, bad as it is, is the sole source of Muslim fundamentalism or of other problems in the Gulf, where stresses of the region's modernization and intra-Arab disputes are also major sources of conflict. Giving in to this temptation could blind the West to Iran's long-range importance and lead it to see regional developments solely through the eyes of Iran's traditional competitors.
* Encourage countries friendly to the US and with standing in Iran -- e.g. Germany, Japan -- to develop their commercial dealings in Iran and to keep their lines open to both current and alternative leadership.
This is not a powerful strategy, but in the circumstances the US is left with little else. There should be no mistake: the Soviets understand that the strategic prize on the northern littoral of the Gulf is Iran, not Iraq. If the US does not recognize the stake it has in Iran and do now what it can to thwart Soviet ambitions, the West could soon be faced with the worst crisis ever for its interests in the Middle East.