The Kremlin can only view with the sharpest misgiving the latest escalation of fighting between one of its key Arab allies, Iraq, and huge and strategic Iran on its southern borders.
The dilemma for the Soviets is similar to the one they faced when Somalia and Ethiopia were fighting on the Horn of Africa two years ago -- which of the two combatants to support, in a situation where they might prefer to offend neither.
On the Horn, Moscow chose Ethiopia, thus allowing the United States to move in later, establish close ties with the slighted Somalia, and obtain base rights in the key Somali port of Berbera at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Now, right on its own borders, the bombing of Tehran airport and eight other Iranian airfields by Iraqi planes confronts Moscow with another decision:
Whether to side with Iraq, under terms of the peace and friendship treaty with Baghdad signed in 1972, or whether to keep on trying to placate the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in the continuing hope of eventually supplanting the US as Iran's principal ally in the post-Shah period.
"It's tough one for the Soviets," as one Western diplomatic source here comments. "They'll be waiting to see whether the fighting really flares up now or whether the Tehran airport bombing was a one-time-only affair."
Some Western sources her have doubted until now that Iran or Iraq really wanted their conflict to escalate into full-scale war, on the grounds that Iraq didn't need it and Iran couldn't wage it, given its current chaos.
As reports of the airport bombing reached Moscow, a special envoy from Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was here, meeting for 2 1/2 hours Sept. 22 with a senior Kremlin official. The official was Boris Ponomaryov, who heads Moscow's relations with opposition communist and left-wing parties abroad.
The Soviets were doubtless alarmed when Iraq renounced its 1975 treaty with Iran recently, a treaty considered a pillar of stability in the entire region.
The envoy, Tareq Aziz, was described in Iraqi sources here as a member of the ruling revolutionary command council in Baghdad. His arrival here in Moscow Sept. 21 was unreported in the Soviet press.
The meeting with Mr. Ponomaryov was reported here, though not until eight hours afterward. Tass said merely that "topical questions of the present international situation and the situation in the Near and Middle East were discussed. . . ." Iraqi sources said the main topic of the talks was the fighting with Iran. But they would not say if Mr. Aziz was asking for arms. Some Westerners here thought it could not be ruled out. Iraq's Air Force contains Soviet TU-22 and IL-28 bombers, part of a large inflow of Soviet arms after the pro-British monarchy had been toppled in Baghdad in 1958.
Iraq could now be seeking spare parts, or new arms, or assurances that the Soviets will not aid Iran. The Iranian ambassador in Moscow, Mohammad Mokri, said here in early September that Moscow had offered to sell Iran arms but that Tehran had refused.
Under Article 8 of the 1972 Moscow-Baghdad Treaty, both sides should "immediately contact each other with the aim of coordinating their positions" if peace was threatened -- a pledge that stops short of automatic aid.
Soviet press reporting of the fighting so far (at this writing the Tehran bombing had not been reported) has been low key. Reports from Baghdad have come first, almost always followed by others from Paris citing French news agency accounts of the Iranian point of view.
Predictably, one initial Soviet reaction has been to try to blame Washington for everything. Pravda Sept. 22, in Moscow's first direct comment on the fighting (before the bombing), briefly referred to the conflict as allegedly instigated by the US as part of a "divide and conquer" strategy in the area.
One Western views is that Soviet ties with Iraq, while strained over the past two years, are still stronger than those with Iran. The Soviets may feel it necessary to keep as much Iraqi goodwill as possible, in an effort to retain Baghdad's support against the Camp David talks between the US, Egypt, and Israel.
Yet the Kremlin could have a lot to lose by openly antagonizing Tehran these days. It has stayed almost silent in face of a string of Iranian criticisms and denunciations in recent months.
Iran has expelled a Soviet diplomat on charges of spying, refused to lower its prices for natural gas, demanded withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan (as has Iraq), closed its consulate in Leningrad, and demanded an end to Soviet support for the Tudeh Communist Party and Kurdish guerillas in Iran.