IRAN'S diplomacy toward the former Soviet republics is dominated by an emotional desire to reestablish close ties with a region that was once part of the Persian empire and by the political expediency of maintaining good relations with Russia.
Both aims are sometimes difficult to combine, forcing Iranian diplomats to walk a tightrope, they and other observers say.
"We would like Russia to be a regional power counterbalancing [United States] influence in the Middle East," explains an Iranian ambassador in Europe. "We presently see Russia as a country that has just lost its Central Asian colonial empire. History has shown that after getting rid of colonies, some countries have emerged more powerful than ever."
A European ambassador in Tehran adds, "Tehran has another good reason to cultivate its friendship with Moscow: It wants to avoid any interruption in the flow of weapons from Russia to the Islamic republic." Arms trade unaffected
Last December, a few days before Russia became an independent state, Vice President Alexander Rutskoi visited Tehran. He was pressed by his Iranian hosts, including Minister of Defense Akbar Torkan, to pledge that Russia would honor deals signed by their Soviet predecessors.
At the end of Mr. Rutskoi's visit, the Islamic Republic News Agency announced that Russia would abide by the pact on arms trade signed between Iran and the Soviet Union in June 1989.
Before recognizing the 11 new republics Dec. 25, Iran had been circumspect about its relations with the Muslim republics and preferred to deal with Moscow.
Since the replacement of the Soviet Union by the Commonwealth of Independent States, Iran has maneuvered to develop its relations with the new Asian republics - primarily Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan - without confronting Russia.
Asked about his country's policy toward Central Asia at a press conference April 11, Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akbar Velayati said cautiously: "We want to have good neighborly relations with those republics on the basis of mutual respect and noninterference in one another's affairs. Of course we have historic, cultural, and religious bonds with those countries."
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is a good example of Tehran's policy in Central Asia.
On the one hand, Mr. Velayati has been trying since Feb. 24 to act as mediator. And according to a recent editorial in the semiofficial daily Tehran Times, "Iran believes it can be a fair mediator in this conflict because both ethnic Armenians and ethnic Azeris have been living in peace on its territory, enjoying equal rights."
On the other hand, when Armenians and Azeris agreed March 15 to sit down and negotiate in Tehran, Velayati immediately invited a representative of the Russian government to attend.
Throughout the mediation process, most Tehran dailies as well as Iranian officials have castigated the West and particularly the US for "their contemptuous attitude toward Central Asia republics' problems." Turkey has regularly been accused by Iranian editorialists of "spearheading Western and US influence in Central Asia." But no one in Tehran ventured to criticize Moscow.
Iranian diplomats and journalists also confirm that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finds it hard to follow the pace of events in the former Soviet Union.
"We have to confess, thus far we have been reacting to events but have failed to anticipate them," an Iranian diplomat said.
But an Iranian journalist adds: "Islamic and Iranian values are alive in those countries. Therefore there is no need for us to make any propaganda over there. We feel that those new republics will, in the long run, naturally turn to us."
Meanwhile, Iranian authorities have quietly announced a series of projects that, if completed, could reinforce ties between Iran and a number of the republics.
In addition to opening new air routes between Tehran and most of the republics' capitals, Iran plans to participate in building a railway between its eastern city of Mashad, Ashkhabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, and Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan.
Telecommunications are being reinforced as well. Telex operators in Tehran were notified a few weeks ago that the former Soviet-Azeri network could be accessed directly without an international dialing code. Nakhichevan republic
The little-known autonomous republic of Nakhichevan represents a specific problem in Iran's relations with Central Asian states. Nakhichevan is a 2,121 square-mile Azeri enclave south of Armenia, bordering Iran. And most its 210,000 Shiite Muslim residents have relatives in the Iranian Azeri provinces.
Since 1924, the enclave has been part of Azerbaijan. But the outbreak of war over Nagorno-Karabakh has isolated Nakhichevan from mainland Azerbaijan forcing its people to turn to Iran for food and medicine.
Since the railway between Baku and Nakhichevan city is regularly cut off by Armenian militiamen, Tehran has offered to build a line to break its isolation, but also bind it to Iran.
Western diplomats here say that if the present situation lasts, Nakhichevan may naturally become part of Iran. Reports indicate growing economic exchange across the Iran-Nakhichevan border. Commonwealth customs officials were reported, however, to be on duty at the Jolfa border post, signaling that the international boundary still exists.