The dramatic change was evident in an episode three weeks ago. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd sent a special message to the Iranian president expressing the "unanimity" of views on oil and OPEC issues between the two former rivals and calling for "greater collaboration." Just two years ago the Saudi air force was engaged in dog fights with Iranian warplanes, actually shooting one down.
But even more interesting has been the Kremlin's budding rapprochement with Iran, a surprising development in light of Iranian historic aprehensions and Washington's recent ruses.
In the past, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini has warned his followers, "Be fully aware that the danger represented by the communist powers is no less than that of America." Various national celebrations usually have been marked by demonstrators stomping on, then burning the Hammer and Sickle as well as the Stars and Stripes. The catch-all rhetorical phrase in Tehran is ''neither East nor West," reflecting the antagonism that led Iran to reject Soviet arms deals shortly after the gulf war broke out.
And to ensure Iran's continuing hostility toward the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain secretly handed over the names of key KGB agents and other East bloc operatives in Iran to the theocracy. The information, which had come from a Soviet defector, led to the 1982-83 wave of arrests and executions of communist Tudeh Party members and other leftists in Iran.
But by early 1985 the Soviets were making diplomatic inroads again. After an official visit to Moscow by an Iranian deputy foreign minister, committees were established to focus on joint projects, such as transporting Iranian gas throught the Soviet Union to Europe. Iran has just announced that its foreign minister will soon visit Moscow.
Both before and after the 1979 revolution, the Kremlin has regarded Iran as a strategic prize. It did not particularly like the shah and it actually fears the theocrats. Their ideological zealotry has ignited Islamic passions among the 45 million Muslims in the Soviet Union; mosque attendance and the number of mullahs have reportedly mushroomed at a rate unprecedented since before the Soviets own revolution in 1917. And four Soviet diplomats were abducted by Islamic extremists in Lebanon last year. One was killed before a deal was struck to free them.
But whatever kind of regime rules in Tehran, the real estate - in terms of both oil resources and geostrategic position - has simply been too vital to either ignore or to isolate.
The Soviet Union has a long history of interest and intervention in Iran, both politically and militarily. Its allies and supporters in Iran played a pivotal role in the 1979 revolution, marching alongside the religious fundamentalists and defying the shah's army during the mass demonstrations that eventually ended the monarchy. Leftists and Tudeh Party members were instrumental in government operations during the transition - until they were purged.
The Soviet Union's policy stems from a 1921 treaty that gave it the right to intervene in Iran whenever forces base operations against Soviet interests on Iranian soil. During World War II, that treaty was invoked and Soviet troops occupied the northern third of Iran. Stalin's refusal to remove his troops after the war ended became the first crisis faced by the then-fledgling U.N. Security Council in 1946.
The ayatollah's regime has since denounced the treaty, but the Soviets have not - a major factor in the Carter administration's deliberations about alternatives to free the 52 Americans held in Tehran. The Soviets now have 26 divisions stationed along their 1,200-mile border with Iran as well as at least 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, with which Iran shares a 500-mile border.
The Soviets' current and somewhat tenuous diplomatic flirtation with the theocracy is motivated by the calculations that have led other nations to rethink policy.
First, Islamic rule is not going to die with the ayatollah; it is now too well entrenched. Even with massive Western assistance, neither the monarchists nor the conservative Islamic forces have sufficient support or power bases to overthrow the mullahs.
Second, Iraq can no longer hope to win the gulf war, symbolized by Iranian troops crossing the Tigris last year and capturing the strategic Faw peninsula this year. Unprecedented infusions of money and materiel would be required to prevent the Iranians from achieving anything less than a qualified victory, which will have major impact on the balance of power in the gulf.
In other words, the issue of Iran cannot be avoided over the long term. Indeed, each of the interested outside parties is now positioning itself to influence Iran in the post-Khomeini era and after the war ends. And the United States actually has the strongest playing card.
In theory, the Soviets are even more suspect to the theocracy than are the Americans. Communism is atheistic, whereas the West is rich with religious traditions. The Koran dictates Muslim respect for other monotheistic faiths and blasts nonbelievers. The recent rapprochement is the result of the same process that led one Iranian faction to deal with the "Great Satan." Necessity breeds compromise.
Islam also has its capitalist traditions dating back to the founding of the faith 13 centuries ago. The bazaaris, including gold vendors and rug merchants, are still an important power bloc in Tehran. And eight years after the revolution, the long-anticipated land reform and nationalization programs still have not been enacted.
The Iranian infrastructure is largely Western, from oil-drilling equipment to hospital supplies. The proud Persians also prefer, indeed are arrogant about, quality products. In terms of reconstruction and development aid, industrialized democracies clearly would have the edge.
Thus, the value of the "strategic initiative" should not be lost sight of during the coming months of acrimonious debate and agonizing investigations into two side issues: the wisdom of introducing arms into negotiations and the legality of channeling profits to Nicaragua's contras.
The means and byproduct of this fundamental policy shift were clearly unwise and unwarranted. And the premature timing was disastrous. But the end goal was legitimate, for the rather tortuous rapprochement process with the Islamic republic is now a virtual necessity - not because of the hostages.