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Kremlin tries to twist hostage release to own gain

The Soviet Union, already disturbed by unrest and hostility to its south, feels further threatened by United States and Iranian moves to resolve the hostage crisis in Tehran.

This is seen here as a likely explanation for reports carried by the official Soviet news media that the United States was gearing up for "armed aggression" against Iran. The Carter administration, mounting last-ditch efforts to spring the hostages before leaving office, took time out to protest the Soviet reports.

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The view south from the Kremlin -- literally and politically -- has been bleak of late.

A pasty mix of snow and slush sits atop the banks of the Moscow River. Hundreds of miles farther south, Soviet troops face nagging unrest in Afghanistan.

Next door, Iran and Iraq wage a stubborn frontier war. The Kremlin seems to have been forced into clumsy neutrality in the conflict, avoiding open support for either side yet resented by both.

Analysts point to at least one further possible catalyst for the Soviet reports: The West's continued emphasis on the crises in Afghanistan and Poland. The allegations of US designs on Iran looked to some Kremlin-watchers as part of a Soviet countercampaign, jibing with similar media accusations over US policy toward El Salvador.

Since the start of the hostage crisis, the Soviet Union has sought to use Iranian resentment of the Americans as a means of expanding its own influence in the area. That has not, seemingly, worked.

Indeed, as secular moderates and politicized mullahs vied for power in Iran, they often seemed agreed on only one point: mistrust of avowedly godless communism.

The outbreak of the Iraq-Iran war last autumn backed Moscow into something of a corner.

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The Soviets clearly remained hopeful of building better ties with the new Iranian regime.

Yet Iraq -- wielding Soviet-manufacture arms and a 1972 friendship pact with Moscow -- could not easily be slighted.

The Soviets settled on a formal neutrality, perhaps typified by the distinctly atypical coverage of the Gulf war by Moscow media. There were no good guys nor bad guys; no pristine progressives nor undiluted imperialists. The Communist Party newpaper Pravda has paired battle claims from both rival capitals, while Soviet leaders have urged both sides to stop fighting.

But neither side seems to be listening; and each seems simply to resent its giant neighbor to the north.

Although Iran has intermittently hinted at closer trade ties with the Soviet bloc in what amounted to an exercise in nose thumbing at Washington, various Tehran leaders have continued to express fundamental mistrust of the Soviets.

Iraq seems to feel much the same way. Even before the Gulf war, the Baath Socialist regime there had been moving against suspected subversion by local communists. Iraqi strong man Saddam Hussein was trying to fashion a militantly "nonaligned" (and distinctly anti-Soviet) alliance in the region with himself in the driver's seat.

The Iraqi leadership can hardly have been warmed by the formally neutral Soviets' signing of a treaty with Syria, Iraq's neighbor and longtime rival, shortly after the Gulf war began.

Likewise, the Soviet news agency Tass recently picked up an Iraqi Communist Party statement from the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Diplomats see no immediate likelihood of genuinely friendly relations between Washington and either Iran or Iraq -- whatever the outcome of the hostage negotiations and of the Gulf war.

But a further dip in Soviet stock there is seen as possible, compounding the perennial Soviet fear of "enci rclement".

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