IRANIAN officials are keeping a close eye on political developments in the Soviet Union, but they are not rushing to support the prospect of independence for the Muslim republics on the Soviet-Iranian border."We need a few more months to study the question," says an aide to Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani in a phone interview. "Then we will make a final decision on how to tackle this new situation on our northern border." Earlier this month, Mr. Rafsanjani acknowledged the likelihood that "the Soviet Union is falling apart." But Iran's Supreme Council for National Security has not yet recognized the independence of any of the neighboring republics. At the same time, the Council has said Iran would respect any agreement between the Soviet central power and its republics, a statement European diplomats read as a clear sign Tehran is not interested in dealing with new, independent states on its border. "At the present time, we have nothing to gain from a dismemberment of the Soviet empire," explains an Iranian journalist contacted in Tehran. "In our heart of hearts, we know that Azerbaijan and Turkmenia were once part of the Persian empire. We are sure that Muslim people living there have more in common with us than with the Russians. But our leaders believe that time is not ripe for us to meddle into these problems. Saying openly now what we have in the back of our minds would ruin all our present eff orts to break our diplomatic isolation." Large parts of neighboring Soviet republics were once part of the Persian empire, or under its influence. Persia gave up Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to Czarist Russia in the first quarter of the 19th century. The segment of the Iran-Soviet border east of the Caspian Sea was delineated only in 1876, when Czarist armies gained control over Turkmenia.
Concern over US influence Iranian leaders rejoice at the crumbling of a regime that was once described in the Islamic revolutionary lexicon as "the Soviet atheist empire." But they also see much to be concerned about, both domestically and internationally, in the consequences of such a disintegration. On the international front, they worry that waning Soviet influence in the Middle East will leave the region dominated by the United States and Israel. Since the early days of the Islamic revolution, Iranian leaders had played one superpower against the other, using Soviet might as a counterweight to US influence in the region. In the 1980s, Tehran regularly praised Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist policies. They appreciated the liberalization of religious practice and the decision to withdraw troops from Afghan- istan. But they became nervous soon after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, when they saw Soviet domestic changes as weakening its influence on the international scene. Thus, when the Soviet coup began on Aug. 19, Iran refrained from condemning it. Tehran radio went so far as to criticize Gorbachev for "having allowed the US to launch the Gulf war and gain control over the entire Middle East." But when Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he was immediately congratulated by Rafsanjani. This apparent political U-turn, say Western diplomats in Tehran, is the consequence of the growing fear that Boris Yeltsin might emerge as the only winner of the aborted coup. Mr. Yeltsin is perceived, says an Iranian diplomat in Paris, as "a new Russian czar, who, like all his predecessors, is an imperialist who intends to impose [his] will on the southern Islamic regions at the edge of his Christian empire." "Yeltsin is a puppet whose strings are pulled by Washington," adds a civil servant in Tehran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Iran's ethnic tensions Western observers in Tehran say Iran has another good reason for steering clear of the Soviet quagmire. Like the Soviet Union, Iran is a patchwork of ethnic groups, and any nationalist flareup in a neighboring country could provide a spark for groups inside of Iran. Just south of the border between Azerbaijan and Iran lie two Iranian provinces inhabited by ethnic Azeris. Tension between ethnic Persians and Azeris has been endemic throughout Iran's history. Azeris, known in Iran as Turks, are regularly the target of nasty jokes on their allegedly thick accent when they speak Farsi. The Iranian Azeris themselves have been restive for decades. In December 1945, communist insurgents backed by the Soviet Union set up a short-lived Autonomous Government of Azerbaijan in northwestern Iran.