Iranians Balance Ties with Russia Tehran Seeks Influence in New Islamic Republics, While Preserving Agreements with Moscow

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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. …