Recent signs show that Iran is warming to the Soviet Union in the economic sphere - but it would be a mistake to interpret this as a significant foreign policy reorientation that places Iran in the Soviet orbit. That is the view shared by Western diplomats in Tehran and other observers, who say there remain fundamental contradictions between Iran's theocratic Islamic regime and the Soviet communist system. The main political difference is Moscow's support of Iraq, Iran's arch enemy in the six-year-old Persian Gulf war.
However, the signing in Tehran last week of a limited economic cooperation agreement between Iran and the Soviet Union shows the willingness of both to resume ``good neighborly relations'' - a realization, analysts say, that such moves are in their own geopolitical interests.
This quiet boosting of Iran-Soviet relations, according to sources' observations, is apparently backed by leaders of all factions in Iran's political elite. Despite pointed criticism of the Soviets for their role in Afghanistan and support of Iraq, the overall official attitude contrasts with the more widespread negative reactions to reported contacts between Iran and the United States.
However, an Iranian official in Tehran played down the importance of the protocol. ``We have just put down in black and white a series of things that had been negotiated earlier. A few Soviet technicians will come to Iran to take part in the construction of [dams] ... and that's it,'' he said, leaving the impression he was eager to scotch rumors that Iran is tilting toward the East bloc.
A senior European diplomat contacted in Tehran is skeptical that the Soviet-Iran agreement will bring further concrete results. ``The Soviets won't make any concession to the Iranians as long as they remain bent on the destruction of the Iraqi regime,'' he says.
According to this diplomat, Moscow is irked by what it sees as Tehran's double-faced policy: Iran publicly woos Moscow but at the same time secretly buys weapons from the US and sends the message to Gulf Arab states and the Reagan administration that it would welcome the replacement of Iraq's pro-Soviet President, Saddam Hussein, even by a pro-Western leader.
The Soviets are also concerned by the possible spread of Islamic fundamentalism in regions of their country that border Iran and Afghanistan, particularly in the republics of Tadzhikistan and Azerbaijan. Last month, the Soviet news agency Tass condemned what it called ``dangerous resurgence of medieval religious tradition in [the Soviet Republic of] Tadzhikistan.'' This helps explain the Soviet reluctance to take any steps that would significantly enhance Iran's military, political, or religious influence in the region, analysts say.
Under last week's agreement, the Soviets will ship Iran industrial equipment and several hundred Soviet technicians will work on power stations. But the accord falls short of several key Iranian demands, including:
A specific date for resuming Soviet purchases of Iranian natural gas, which Moscow agreed to in principle several months ago. The reopening of the Iranian-Soviet gas pipeline would provide Tehran with badly needed currency. Deliveries of Iranian gas were halted in 1980, after Moscow refused a price increase.
Halting the Soviet flow of arms to Iraq. Despite Iranian protests, Moscow continues to send sophisticated weaponry to Iraq and dismiss Iranian requests for military hardware. However, Moscow does allows some of its allies - notably North Korea and Libya - to provide Iran with mainly nonsophisticated arms.
Afghanistan. Moscow has not made any concession to Tehran on the issue of Soviet troops in Afghanistan propping up that country's communist government.
Reorganizing Iranian communists. Soviet authorities are sponsoring the reorganization in exile of the Tudeh Party, the Iranian communist party, which held its first official meeting in Moscow in October.
Last week's meeting was the result of several rounds of quiet diplomatic talks that have taken place despite ups and downs in Iran-Soviet ties in recent years. After criticizing the Shiite Islamic clergy in the first months of the Iranian uprising, Moscow jumped on and lashed out at the ailing imperial regime by the end of 1978.
After the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980, Moscow reduced arms sales to Iraq and even offered Iran military aid. But Iranian leaders refused, insisting on staying independent from the superpowers.
In 1982, when Iranian troops entered Iraqi territory, Moscow resumed shipments of sophisticated weapons to Baghdad and accused Iran of being responsible for continuing the war. A few months later, relations between Tehran and Moscow soured. In spring 1983, militants of the Iranian Communist party were arrested and executed, and several Soviet diplomats were expelled.
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.