WASHINGTON -- Iran, a pivotal country in the showdown with Iraq and the future security of the Persian Gulf, is moving to restore ties with the West while maintaining its leadership among radical Moslems, analysts say.
In recent days, Iran has restored diplomatic relations with Great Britain that were broken over the Salman Rushdie affair and taken modest steps toward doing the same with Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials say no Iranian relations with the United Sates are possible until American hostages held by Iran-backed Shiite Moslems in Lebanon are freed and Iran halts its support for terrorism.
But with Syria acting as a key intermediary, the United States is keeping close tabs on Iran's actions and intentions in the Gulf crisis and treating Iran delicately, avoiding any statement that would bolster suspicions that Iran is undermining U.N. sanctions.
At a recent meeting in New York with Syrian Foreign Minister Faroul al-Sharaa, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was given "a very full readout" on Syrian President Hafez el Assad's meetings with top Iranian officials.
"The common position that they [Iran and Syria] have is that there has to be unconditional withdrawal of Iraq, and also the legitimate Kuwaiti government has to be restored," a senior State Department official said. "He [President Assad] also said that the Iranians made it categoric that they were committed to carrying out totally the sanctions."
Reports from Tehran indicate that the Assad meetings went well beyond the sanctions issue to take in contingencies in the event that the stalemate continues, the anti-Iraq alliance weakens, war breaks out or Israel enters the conflict.
In a communique, Iran and Syria, already close, said they had agreed to set up a high-level committee for continuing consultations.
Iran, which fought an eight-year war against its next-door neighbor Iraq, was for years viewed here as the chief threat to American interests in the Gulf. The Khomeini regime's bitter anti-Western hostility and political turbulence in the post-Khomeini era were key factors in the U.S. bid to maintain a counterbalancing relationship with Iraq.
Even now, officials fear future Iranian dominance in the gulf region. Paul Wolfowitz, under secretary of defense for policy, told Congress last week that in the unlikely event that Iraq is eliminated permanently as a regional power, "that would merely create new threats to regional stability."
And some U.S. officials remain wary about Iran's intentions in the Gulf crisis, saying it still seems unsure how it can extract the best possible advantage.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati's public statements are closely in sync with those of Syria. He has voiced full support for U.N. sanctions, pledged Iran would work to combat border smuggling into Iraq and said if sanctions fail, military action against Iraq may be necessary.
But he has also said Iran would not join in a conflict. Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, last month called for a holy war against foreign forces in the region. But Mr. Velayati has only opposed the "permanent" presence of foreign forces, as has Syria.
Shaul Bakhash, a George Mason University history professor and expert on Iran, says it would be awkward for Iran to participate in military action against Iraq alongside U.S. forces.
While Iran still wants to clinch a peace agreement with Saddam Hussein, it is totally against its interests to allow Iraq to hold on to Kuwait, he said, since that would just make Iraq a far more powerful adversary.
At the same time, Iranians worry that the U.S. may remain in the Gulf permanently and dominate any emerging security arrangements, he said.
"In recent weeks, they have talked quite a lot about regional security arrangements run by regional states that would allow [an Iranian] reintegration with other Gulf states," Mr. Bakhash said.
If Iran becomes part of such arrangements, "it can't be denied sophisticated weaponry," he said.
While seeking economic ties with the West, Iran's leaders must continue to speak to their anti-Western constituency, Mr. Bakhash says. "They can't lose their leadership position on radical Islamic issues."