LONDON — Few observers doubt Iran's genuine commitment to its "neither East nor West" foreign policy, or its intense antipathy to atheistic Marxism. But such are the pressures of geography, recent history and the current state of Iran's economy and its war with Iraq that Iran is finding it hard to avoid a tilt toward Moscow.
Sharing long frontiers with a superpower, the weaker state can ill afford to be hostile toward its powerful neighbor. This is particularly true of an Iran at war with Iraq; the last thing the Khomeini regime wants is to upset the Kremlin and thereby invite a large Soviet military presence along its northern border.
Conversely, to show good will toward Tehran all the Kremlin has to do is to patrol its border with Iran lightly. And that is precisely what it has been doing for the past few years, thus allowing Iran to leave its northern frontier virtually unattended and focus its military energies on its western border with Iraq. This has been the strategic understanding between the two neighbors on which a stronger relationship is being steadily built.
It is true that the Soviets occupied northern Iran, including Tehran, during World War II, but in Iran the memory of that occupation has faded. In contrast, the memory of the American domination of Iranian life--political, military, economic and social--from 1953 to 1978 is branded into the psyche of the current leaders of Iran. They believed that Iran could not become truly independent until they had totally expelled American influence.
On a more practical level, the collapse earlier this year of oil prices--following the flooding of the market by Saudi Arabia, a staunch ally of the United States--drove Iran to such economic straits that last August it offered natural gas supplies to Moscow, a trade that had been suspended in April, 1980. The Soviets were only too willing to upgrade links with Tehran.
The possibility of an active alliance between Tehran and Moscow is a prospect that haunts American policy-makers. Part of the reason why President Reagan took the initiative to normalize relations with the Iran was his awareness that over the past many months Moscow had been strengthening its links with Tehran.
How well these economic links are being strengthened became apparent recently. The Standing Commission for Iran-Soviet Economic Cooperation met in Moscow Dec. 9-12 after a lapse of six years. The list of industries included in their agreement was significant: transport, steel mills, machine tools, power plants, fishing, banking, construction and technology.
The gas sale will earn Iran $2 billion a year, about a quarter of the country's current income from oil. With this, the Soviet Union will become Tehran's No. 1 trading partner, a shade ahead of Turkey.
The current controversy about the supplies of U.S.-made weapons to Iran has obscured the fact that nearly 50% of the Iranian budget for foreign weapons and ammunition is spent on procuring military hardware that is either Soviet-made or manufactured under Soviet licenses. The comparative figure for Western manufactured military hardware is 20%, with China accounting for the remaining 30%.
Soviet-made or -designed arms and ammunition reach Iran through various channels: the Eastern European countries of Czechoslovakia, Poland and East Germany; Syria and Libya, allies of both Moscow and Tehran; North Korea, and, as was recently revealed by the Sunday Times of London, directly from the Soviet Union.
As in the case of Washington, direct shipments of weapons from the Soviet Union to Iran had been kept secret--in this case so as not to tarnish the friendship and cooperation treaty between Moscow and Baghdad.
About a third of Iran's 1,350 tanks are Soviet-made machines captured from the Iraqis. Since these are used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, who are more numerous as well as more active on the battlefronts than army troops, the need for spare parts and ammunition for the Soviet tanks has been rising.
From its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran began to diversify its sources of arms and ammunition, pursuing this policy vigorously when faced by an economic embargo imposed by the United States and the European Community in April, 1980, a response to the American hostage crisis.
By the time the hostage crisis was resolved in January, 1981, Iran found itself under an arms embargo by NATO members following the outbreak of the Gulf War four months earlier. Along with this came an arms embargo by the Warsaw Pact members.
Iran has therefore been unable to replace the U.S.-made warplanes it has lost in its six-year-old conflict. Also, a lack of spare parts for its U.S.-made aircraft has hampered Iran's efforts to keep its planes airworthy. Lack of sufficient air cover for its ground forces during its periodic offensives against Iraq has been a major Iranian weakness, and the main factor for the four-year-long stalemate in the Gulf War.