THE recent flurry of Soviet diplomatic activity in Iran, including visits to Tehran by deputy Soviet Foreign Minister Yuri Voronstov and the signing of a number of economic agreements, has led some observers to believe that Iran has shifted from a position of neutrality between the two superpowers to a pro-Soviet alignment. Such, however, does not appear to be the case. Indeed, just as Iran has been proven to have manipulated the US in the Iran-contra affair, so, too, Iran has been manipulating the Soviet Union.
Moscow has been seeking influence in the Khomeini regime since the fall of the Shah in 1979 but has not met with great success. The nadir of the relationship came in 1983 when Iran expelled 18 Soviet diplomats for spying.
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took office, he sought to improve relations. For its own reasons, the Iranian leadership reciprocated. During a February 1986 visit to Iran, first deputy Soviet Foreign Minister Georgii Kornienko got Tehran to agree to the resumption of Aeroflot flights to Iran, and Iran's foreign minister agreed to visit Moscow. Mr. Gorbachev may well have felt he was making headway in improving the Soviet position in Iran.
Less than a week after Kornienko's visit, however, Iran embarked on a major offensive in its war against Iraq. It might well have occurred to Moscow that Tehran was exploiting the Kornienko visit to deter the USSR from increasing its aid to Iraq lest Moscow lose the increased influence in Iran it had just apparently obtained.
Iran repeated the maneuver again later in the year. After visits to the Soviet Union by two more leading Iranian officials and agreement by Moscow to return the technicians it had pulled out of Iran in 1985, Iran, once again, appeared to exploit its improvement of ties with Moscow in going on a major offensive against Iraq in early January, 1987.
Moscow, now perhaps understanding the Iranian ploy, reacted angrily; it issued its most detailed condemnation of the war to date and proposed a solution far closer to the Iraqi than the Iranian position. Moscow followed this up with a bitterly critical article in Pravda, taking Iran to task for mistreating jailed Iranian communists.
Following the publication of the Soviet peace plan, the Soviet-Iranian relationship deteriorated sharply. Moscow complained not only about Iranian aid to the Afghan rebels, but also about Iranian attacks on Soviet ships in the Gulf (one was machine-gunned and rocketed; the other hit a mine), and about Iranian attempts to export Islamic fundamentalism. In addition, Moscow protested Iranian claims to Soviet territory in Tadjikistan, Turkmen, Georgia, and Uzbekistan. Finally, Soviet spokesmen went so far as to call for United Nations sanctions against Iran if it continued the war.
What, then, has caused the change for the better in Soviet-Iranian relations in recent weeks?
Without question it appears to be the increasing United States involvement in the Gulf, and Iran's increasing isolation in the world. At war with Iraq, having broken diplomatic relations with France and England, and under heavy pressure from the US which had agreed to reflag Kuwaiti tankers, Tehran has tilted somewhat toward Moscow.
Moscow, in addition to wanting improved ties with Iran, shares the Iranian goal of getting the US fleet out of the Gulf. Hence the July 4 Soviet peace plan which called for an end to attacks on shipping in the Gulf and the withdrawal from the Gulf of all foreign fleets.
Since US protection against Iran is one of the main sources of US influence among the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrein, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), getting the US to leave the Gulf would clearly weaken the US political position there and amount to a major plus for Moscow. In addition, Moscow is concerned that the US will exploit the Iranian military threat to acquire bases in the Gulf and divert Arab attention from previous US arms shipments to Iran.
While both Iran and Moscow share the goal of ousting the US from the Gulf, and Iran could usefully use Soviet territory to transship its goods if the Gulf were blocked, serious differences remain between the two countries.
Thus, while Moscow has sought to end the Iran-Iraq war, Ayatollah Khomeini pointedly told Voronstov during the latter's visit to Tehran in mid-June that Iran plans to pursue the war even more vigorously. Similarly, Tehran has given no indication of any willingness to end its support for the Afghan rebels, and it continues to criticize Moscow for sending arms to Iraq.
While Iran has signed some economic agreements with Moscow, its public statements about the relationship seem primarily aimed at exploiting Moscow's desire for influence in Iran as a way to deter the US from attacking Iran, and also to prevent Moscow from agreeing to sign a UN resolution carrying strong sanctions against Iran.
In sum, the recent rapprochement between Iran and the USSR would appear to be, at most, tactical. While Moscow would like to claim influence in Iran, it would appear that Tehran is manipulating the Soviet desire to suit Iranian ends, much as it manipulated the US in the Iran-contra affair.
Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science and dean of the Graduate School, Baltimore Hebrew College.