IN the midst of the ``Rushdie affair,'' Washington is bracing for a renewed cold spell in Iranian relations with the West. At the same time, the United States is watching with irritation as the Soviet Union apparently seeks to take advantage of the situation to cozy up to Tehran. This is the interpretation here of Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's visit to Iran last week.
If Moscow goes forward with arms sales to Tehran which are reportedly under discussion, a senior US official says, ``it will not be helpful, to put it mildly.''
Secretary of State James Baker III is expected to raise Soviet intentions tomorrow with Mr. Shevardnadze in Vienna.
Iran's threats against author Salman Rushdie and his supporters have reinforced the view in Washington that the US has to wait patiently for the Iranian revolution to calm down before expecting better relations.
``The US can't get down on its knees and say `please forgive us,' as today's Iran would like,'' says James Placke, Washington-based international affairs consultant and Gulf specialist. ``That would just raise the price for the eventual normalization of relations and entice Tehran to play us off even more against the Soviets.''
Shaul Bakhash, Iranian specialist at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says Tehran's hard-line revolutionary purists clearly took advantage of the Rushdie controversy to derail the policy of accommodation with the West, which moderates had been constructing over the past year.
Since Ayatollah Khomeini had approved of this accommodation until a month ago, Professor Bakhash says, ``in a way, this is a dramatic reversal for Khomeini himself.'' Bakhash sees no meeting of minds soon between Iran and Western Europe, and predicts a prolonged ``coldness of diplomatic relations.''
US officials say they are gratified by the tough stand taken by the European Community on the threats to kill Mr. Rushdie. They praise the strong role played by West Germany, which earlier tried to serve as a bridge between Tehran and Europe.
``Only when the outside world is unified and tough does it have an impact on Iran,'' the US official says. The trick, he and others say, will be to keep the West unified as Tehran plays its Moscow card and tries to lure West Europeans with trade offers.
``We're not in the lead on this, but we will be working with our allies to maintain Western solidarity,'' a top US regional specialist says. ``We're also going to be carefully monitoring Iranian-Soviet relations and making sure that anything Moscow does has the proper public costs. It can't play all sides in the region without paying.''
US officials appear disappointed that the Rushdie affair has again radicalized Iran. ``We'd thought the pragmatists were tentatively interested in addressing relations with us, and thus the hostage issue,'' the senior official says. ``That will still happen at some point, but this is clearly a major setback.''