Soviets Court Iran As Western Suitors Fall By Wayside

WASHINGTON specialists are skeptical and annoyed by Moscow's current flirting with Tehran. ``Moscow has apparently decided that the chances to improve bilateral relations with Iran are well worth the risk of pandering to Khomeini,'' a top US official says.

He was reacting to reports of a possible Soviet-Iranian arms deal and the cordial atmosphere surrounding last week's visit to Tehran by Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze. US officials were not mollified by subsequent Soviet pronouncements that the Soviets would try to serve as intermediaries in the Rushdie affair.

``Moscow says it wants to be reasonable and constructive on regional questions,'' a US policymaker says, ``but this recalls 1987-88 when they blocked implementation of UN resolution 598 to end the Gulf war and tried to organize their own peace effort.''

That said, neither this official nor others say they think the relationship can go too far. If Moscow agreed to a significant arms supply relationship with Iran, they say, it would shake Soviet ties with Iraq and undercut Moscow's long effort to build bridges to moderate Arab regimes.

Yet if it plays carefully, a US official adds, Moscow may calculate it can gain respect as the only big power with ties to all the key regional players, and plant some roots in Tehran that may last.

Iran specialist Shaul Bakhash says that in addition to showing the traditional ``Moscow card'' against the West, some in Tehran's leadership advocate close ties with Moscow. Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi and Prosecutor General Musavi Khoeiniha, both very hostile to the US, argue that Iran has nothing to fear from the Soviet Union, Mr. Bakhash says. They point to the Soviet-Syrian relationship as an example which Iran can follow.

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