The Kremlin's struggle to reduce US influence in the arc of Muslim countries on its southern borders has run into short-term trouble. But Soviet officials are thought to be confident of long-term gains.
In Iran, Soviet influence has dropped to its lowest point since the Shah was ousted -- with Soviet warnings that the Soviet Embassy in Tehran might be seized , Iranian expulsion of a Soviet diplomat on charges of spying, Iranian condemnation of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, and economic disputes over natural gas and navigation rights.
In Afghanistan, the Soviets can do no more than maintain the current military stalemate, holding the cities and propping up the Babrak Karmal government while being pressed in the rural areas by determined rebel forces. To do more means more troops -- and more condemnation from the West.
In the Mideast, the Camp David process lingers on and Moscow remains on the periphery of diplomacy aimed at a settlement.
And yet, as judged by Western sources in Moscow, the Kremlin can also point to the other side of the diplomatic ledger:
Iran is in open chaos. Sentiment could swing back toward Moscow with a change in the government or in the Foreign Ministry. And the United States remains in bigger trouble with Ayatollah Khomeini than the USSR. It is the US that has lost its strategic position in Iran and whose hostages are still being kept prisoner there.
Soviet troops remain in Afghanistan, even while Moscow talks with he leaders of France and West Germany and goes ahead with plans for the Olympic Games July 19 despite the US-led boycott movement. Moscow is determined that nothing will interfere with the pro-Moscow government in Kabul and shows no sign of being ready for a negotiated withdrawal on any terms the West could accept.
And in the Mideast, Syria is showing signs of moving closer to Moscow and Arab opposition to Camp David remains widespread.
The latest flare-up of trouble between Moscow and Tehran came after several months of deteriorating relations. But it has puzzled Western sources here nonetheless.
Late July 7 the Tass news agency announced the Soviet Embassy in Tehran had told the Iranian Foreign Ministry that "elements hostile to the Soviet Union" intended to stage "provocative acts" against the Soviet Embassy, "up to and including seizure." The embassy demanded that "appropriate measures be taken." Tass later added that Iranian Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh had ordered measures taken.
That the Soviets should be worried about their embassy was not surprising: On June 30 Tehran expelled a Soviet first secretary on charges of spying, and on July 3 Mr. Ghotbzadeh told Iranian reporters the Soviets were guilty of widespread espionage and would have to reduce their numbers in Iran sharply. It was the harshest criticism of Moscow from Iran since the Shah was ousted in early 1979.
According to one report, Mr. Ghotbzadeh also said the Soviet first secretary had to be expelled before there was "some reaction" among the Iranian population.
What was surprising was that the Soviets made the message public -- both to the world on Tass and here at home on radio, TV, and in the press.
Western sources think Moscow has information that an extremist group might attack its embassy without the Iranian government knowing it -- as the US Embassy was seized last November. The Soviets are letting Tehran know the Kremlin holds the government responsible for whatever happens.
For Americans there's an element of poetic justice here. For many months Moscow has not protested the seizure of the US Embassy or the taking of the 53 hostages, and it condemned the failed Carter military rescue mission while urging talks as the only solution.
Now the Kremlin is face to face with Iranian chaos and violence and has to plan its own responses.
Mr. Ghotbzadeh plans to close the Iranian consulate in Leningrad and wants to open one in Dushanbe on the Afghan border. Soviet permission is unlikely, given Iran's sharp criticism of Soviet troops in Afghanistan and its open support for Afghan rebels.
In Baku, in Soviet Azerbaijan, dozens of Iranians staged a demonstration, allegedly wanting to return to Iran. The Iranian ambassador in Moscow has flown to Baku twice to talk to the demonstrators. Details are unclear.
Currently Iran has only nine diplomats in Moscow while the Soviet presence in Tehran is about 50. If Mr. ghotbzadeh insists each country has the same number of diplomats on the other's soil, the Russians will have to do most of the cutting back.
Yet Moscow feels the americans have lost a lot more in Iran than it has itself. It continues to try to expand the influence of the Tudeh or Iranian Communist Party -- though Westerners here doubt Mr. Ghotbzadeh's claim that Tudeh leaders had come to Moscow and met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
In Afghanistan, the Soviets need more troops to break the military stalemate. After the Olympic Games end Aug. 3 is the logical time to send them -- though it might spoil Soviet chances of diplomatic success at the Madrid follow-up conference to the Helsinki agreement of 1975. Madrid preparations begin in September.
In the Mideast, Syrian President Assad has been under stern pressure at home. Reports circulate (though unconfirmed here) that he might move even closer to Moscow to try to contain his critics.