Moscow seems to be watching the Iran crisis with a mixture of satisfaction and apprehension. After years of being described by the Reagan administration as dishonest, evil, and untrustworthy, Moscow takes some pleasure in seeing the administration embroiled in accusations of lies, illegal activities, and cynicism.
But such crises do not necessarily bring only benefits to Moscow. ``Rightist governments under pressure tend to become more rightist,'' said one Soviet official, discussing - just before the Iran crisis surfaced - the potential disadvantages for the Soviet Union of political instability in Western countries. The Soviet leadership knows that it will be even harder to do business with an administration whose hands are tied.
At best, the crisis will use up valuable time that could otherwise have been used in superpower negotiations. At worst, Moscow seems to feel that it could lead to a hardening in the United States line on arms control and other sensitive areas of foreign policy. The signs so far, from Moscow's perspective, are not good.
Since the crisis broke, the US has abandoned the SALT II agreement, and US helicopters have reportedly been involved in fighting on the border between Honduras and Nicaragua.
Commenting yesterday on the Honduran fighting, an observer in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda remarked that US involvement in the operations was an attempt to ``distract attention'' from its other problems.
Moscow's major worries probably lie in the area of arms control. In a press conference early this week, Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh and the Defense Ministry spokesman, Col. Gen. Nikolai Chervov, tried to put a brave face on it.
The arming of another US bomber with cruise missiles did not in itself destroy US-Soviet military parity, Mr. Bessmertnykh said. For the time being, he repeated, the Soviet Union would continue to abide by the conditions of SALT II.
Others have sounded more gloomy.
Writing in the government evening newspaper Izvestia on Monday, Gen. Viktor Starodubov, an arms control specialist on the staff of the Central Committee, agreed that the 131st bomber was indeed only a symbolic breach. But, he argued, this seemed to be only the beginning.
The US is now planning to breach other treaties, including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, he claimed.
Soviet national technical means - satellites and other intelligence devices - had detected ``an array'' of US activities that were, he said, incompatible with the ABM Treaty.
``Given such a negative position by the US administration toward existing treaties, it is scarcely possible to expect efforts by Washington [to conclude] new treaties,'' General Starodubov wrote.
``Washington does not reject negotiations,'' he continued, ``but instead enters into them with positions aimed at guaranteeing the US's military superiority.''
These gloomy predictions may explain in part why Moscow has been quite restrained in its comments on ``Irangate.''
There is, however, probably another reason. The Soviet leadership has long had great difficulty understanding how US leaders get themselves into such messes. Even now Watergate remains something of a mystery for many Soviets.
A few months ago during a public discussion in the Latvian town of Jurmala, a well-educated Soviet asked an American official if there was any proof that the Central Intelligence Agency had been behind the Watergate affair.
His line of reasoning was that the CIA had been disturbed by Richard Nixon's keenness for d'etente with the Soviet Union. And, though a new era of openness has greatly broadened the latitude given to the Soviet news media, it will be a long time before Soviet journalists are able to write expos'es of the secret diplomacy activity in Moscow.