Why superpowers strain over Iran

Iran is a glittering piece of prize geography over which more than one superpower has stumbled. In 1946, the Soviet Union tried to annex a swath of northern Iran occupied during World War II. Iranian leaders turned to the United Nations for help, and eventually pressure from the Western allies forced the Soviets to retreat back over the Talish Mountains.

Now the Reagan administration's clandestine attempt to cultivate Iran has developed into a policy disaster. What is it about this dusty Islamic nation which tempts superpower leaders into high-risk moves?

There are two levels to Iran's strategic importance:

Regionally, Iran has the resources and population to be the most powerful nation on the Persian Gulf. There can be no lasting peace in the Middle East without its agreement. And globally, Iran stands between the Soviet Union and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Much of the world's oil passes within its easy reach.

The factors of rich resources, nearby American allies, and Soviet propinquity make Iran a country intrinsically important to the United States. At one point, President Carter considered the option of using tactical nuclear weapons to halt what seemed to be an imminent Soviet thrust into Iran, according to a recent report in Armed Forces Journal.

``Iran is one of the few areas outside Western Europe where US-Soviet conflict could touch off a world war,'' claims R.K. Ramazani, a professor of foreign affairs at the University of Virginia.

On a regional level, Iran's importance to the US is twofold. Its meddling makes the search for Arab-Israeli peace more difficult. And its war against Iraq makes such US allies as Saudi Arabia anxiously wonder if they are Iran's next target. An Iran more kindly disposed toward the US would presumably cut back on its regional mischief, such as its meddling in Lebanon.

``Without Iran's concurrence there can be no enduring peace in the Middle East,'' said President Reagan in his Nov. 14 speech revealing the US-Iran arms connection.

On a global level, Iran's importance can be summed up in a phrase: oil and instability. Iran dominates the Strait of Hormuz, the New Jersey Turnpike of world oil traffic. The US gets only 2 to 4 percent of its oil supply from the Persian Gulf. Japan, however, gets some 60 percent of its supply from the area; 20 percent of Europe's oil passes through the strait. Iran thus sits in the middle of an area where the West has crucial long-term interests.

It is by no means clear what will happen in Iran when it comes time to pick a successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. US military officers with responsibility for the region say they stay up nights worrying about a Soviet invasion of an Iran that has descended into political chaos. ``Iran is a buffer state blocking the Soviets from the richest oil area in the world,'' says Barry Rubin, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``If it were to fall under Soviet influence it would make the loss of Vietnam look like a strategic picnic.''

Iranian leaders are well aware of the superpower to their north, which may be one reason some elements in Tehran were willing to reopen dialogue with the United States. In the 20th century alone, Russia has invaded Iran or neighboring Afghanistan six times. In the years immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, for instance, the USSR tried to incorporate a slice of northwest Iran, calling it the Gilan Socialist Republic. A 1921 treaty ended this incursion.

The current Afghan war has resulted in a dramatic shift in Soviet military forces in the area, according to senior US officers. In 1985 the highly regarded General of the Army Mikhail Zaytsev was shifted from command of USSR forces in East Germany to head of the Soviet Southern Theater. Forces under his command were built up to some 32 divisions. ``The Soviets now not only possess the desire to expand towards the Indian Ocean, but they have established the military capability to do so as well,'' warned Marine General George Crist, chief of the US Central Command (formerly called the Rapid Deployment Force) which overseas the region.

The Reagan administration invokes the ``Soviet threat'' as reason for all sorts of actions, from Central America to the Far East. It was President Carter, however, who at one point in his administration felt compelled to state that the US would defend its interests in the Persian Gulf by any means necessary.

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