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Yet Moscow can hardly ignore the opportunity presented by Khomeini's rise. An Iran sliding into anarchy, and a Middle East shaken by the furies of Khomeini's followers, would offer the Soviets a chance to substitute their own influence for the Western presence that the Ayatullah's admirers vow to expel. And the Middle East is an unparalleled geopolitical prize.
Whoever controls the Middle East's oil, or the area's Strait of Hormuz (40 miles wide at its narrowest) between Iran and the Sultanate of Oman through which most of it passes, acquires a stranglehold on the world's economy. The U.S.S.R. today is self-sufficient in oil, but it could well become a major net importer in the 1980s—and thus be in direct competition with the West for the crude pumped out of the desert sands. The warm-water ports so ardently desired by the Czars since the 18th century retain almost as much importance today. Soviet missile-firing submarines, for example, now have to leave the ice-locked areas around Murmansk and Archangel through narrow channels where they can easily be tracked by U.S. antisubmarine forces. They would be much harder to detect if they could slip out of ports on the Arabian Sea.
The conflagration in Iran, and the threat of renewed instability throughout the region, could open an entirely new chapter in the story of Soviet efforts to infiltrate the Middle East. So far, the Soviet leaders have played a double game in the hostage crisis. Representatives of the U.S.S.R. voted in the United Nations and World Court to free the hostages. At the same tune, to Washington's intense annoyance, the Soviets have proclaimed sympathy for Iran's anger against the U.S. The Kremlin apparently wants to keep lines open to Khomeini's followers, if not to the Ayatullah himself, while it awaits its chance.
Meanwhile, Moscow has been acting more brazenly throughout the entire region of crisis. Around Christmas, the U.S.S.R. began airlifting combat troops into Afghanistan, reinforcing an already strong Soviet presence. Last week the Soviet soldiers participated in a coup ousting a pro-Moscow regime that had proved hopelessly ineffective in trying to put down an insurrection by anti-Communist Muslim tribesmen. At week's end, Washington charged that Soviet troops had crossed the border into Afghanistan in what appeared to be an outright invasion (see WORLD).
Who or what follows Khomeini is already a popular guessing game in Tehran, Washington and doubtless Moscow. Few of the potential scenarios seem especially favorable to U.S. interests. One possibility is a military coup, led by officers once loyal to the Shah and now anxious to restore order. That might seem unlikely in view of the disorganized state of the army and the popular hatred of the old regime, but the danger apparently seems significant to Khomeini; he is enthusiastically expanding the Pasdaran