WASHINGTON — The Bush Administration, stung by a Soviet promise to help Iran strengthen its military capability, chided Moscow on Friday for cozying up to a terrorist state and implied that the warmer Soviet-Iran relationship may chill President Mikhail S. Gorbachev's standing in the United States.
"As the Soviet Union seeks to play a more responsible international role, we and others will find it difficult to understand efforts to move close to a regime that continues to support international terrorism and hostage takings," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said at a news briefing.
Hostage Issue Raised
A senior State Department official said that if the Soviet Union values the recent relaxation of East-West tensions, it should not have welcomed Iranian Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani to Moscow until the Tehran regime had agreed to use its influence to free American and other foreign hostages held by Muslim extremists in Lebanon.
"I would hope, at least, that the Soviets, as they snuggle up with Tehran, will remember that there are a number of substantial problems (such as) hostages, which they need to be talking about," the official told reporters on condition that he not be named.
"With all of the changes that we have seen in the Soviet Union . . . every once in a while I am struck by the way the Soviets revert to type with regard to their conduct," the official said. "What we are seeing with regard to the friendly relations that are developing between the Soviet Union and Iran is part of a Soviet tendency to try to take advantage of Western problems."
The official said that the Soviet Union has been courting Iran for months, hoping to capitalize on American efforts to isolate the Tehran regime because of its support for terrorism, its threat to kill author Salman Rushdie and its failure to help free the hostages. Since the Iran-Contra scandal ended then-President Ronald Reagan's effort to curry favor with Tehran, the United States has had nothing to do with Iran, the most populous and most powerful nation in the Persian Gulf region.
Secretary of State James A. Baker III told a House committee this week that the United States will not seek to improve its relationship with Iran until Tehran cleans up its act, regardless of what Moscow does. But Baker's public comments glossed over the outrage that Administration officials have expressed in private at what they view as the Soviets' opportunistic attempt to improve their geopolitical standing in the Gulf region.
"One might ask whether the Soviet Union, in the newer relationship between the Soviets and the United States, ought not to be playing a substantial role in trying to get the Iranians to change their conduct in regard to their own activities in the Middle East in general and with regard to hostages in particular," the senior State Department official said.
For most of the last 10 years, since power in Iran passed to the Muslim clergy, the Islamic Republic has denounced the United States and the Soviet Union in similar terms, applying the epithet satanic to both.
However, during his visit to Moscow this week, Rafsanjani said that the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called in his will for Iran to improve its relations with Moscow, despite the Soviet Union's official ideology of atheism. Presumably, Iran has decided that it needs good relations with at least one superpower.
Help for Iran's Arms Industry
During Rafsanjani's visit, the Soviet Union said that it was ready to help Iran "strengthen its defense capacity," apparently by supplying technological assistance to Tehran's domestic arms industry.
Although no specific weapons transfers were mentioned, the agreement came in defiance of U.S. warnings, passed through diplomatic channels, that Washington objects strongly to Soviet arms sales to Iran.
During its long war with Iraq, the Iranian military relied on aging U.S.-made aircraft and other weapons purchased during the regime of the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Many of those arms are now immobilized because of a shortage of spare parts.
Rafsanjani returned to Tehran on Friday after a stop in Soviet Azerbaijan where he delivered a sermon in which he praised Gorbachev as one of the world's great leaders, according to a report by the Reuters news agency.
Reuters, quoting Akif Agayev, a spokesman for the Islamic Board of Transcaucasia, said Rafsanjani called for "more friendship" between Iran and the Soviet Union in his sermon in the central mosque in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan.
Rafsanjani also called for greater cooperation between Muslim organizations and Moscow. In a final communique at the end of Rafsanjani's visit, the Soviet Union and Iran "reaffirmed the legitimate right of the people of Afghanistan to keep the historic Islamic identity of that country and its territorial integrity . . . , " Reuters reported.
Moscow and Tehran have supported opposite sides in the Afghan fighting, with Iran backing the rebels seeking to overthrow the Kremlin-backed Afghan government.