Scandal in Washington Puts Soviet Relationship on Ice

<i> Dimitri K. Simes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. </i>

Moscow’s America-watchers are busy trying to understand the political crisis in Washington over the U.S. secret dealings with Iran. The preliminary Soviet reaction is contradictory. It is a mixture of contempt, delight and concern.

Soviet diplomats talk about the incompetence and hypocrisy of President Reagan’s close associates. The Soviet media ridicule American “double talk” in taking a tough stand against international terrorism. And Soviet insiders observe dryly that the United States seems to have a strong self-destructive instinct. All the Politburo has to do is to wait until the U.S. political process goes through another round of periodic convulsions.

That is not entirely unwelcome news to Mikhail S. Gorbachev and his colleagues. There is no love lost among the Soviet leadership for the Reagan team. And Soviet diplomacy is moving quickly to exploit the U.S. moment of vulnerability. The Soviets remind the Arabs about the dangers of reliance on America. Soviet media commentaries charge the United States with a design to prolong the war between Iran and Iraq for the benefit of Israel. The scandal is used to point out to the West Europeans that the United States is inherently untrustworthy. If the Reagan Administration misled the North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies regarding arms sales to Iran, the Soviets ask rhetorically, how can it be trusted on other matters, such as arms control?

Moscow would be pleased if the disclosure of the Iranian deal’s contra connection would result in the congressional ban of further funding of the anti-Sandinista forces. More generally the Soviets hope that the prolonged controversy will undermine the U.S. President’s ability to conduct an assertive policy in the Third World and to proceed with a vigorous defense effort. Cutting Ronald Reagan down to size is one of Gorbachev’s priorities.

Yet Soviet delight is mixed with suspicion and even fear. With their talent for seeing enemy intrigues everywhere, some Soviet observers wonder whether Reagan’s troubles may reflect a plot by U.S. hard-liners who are unhappy that the President was too forthcoming on arms control in Reykjavik. During Watergate even more perceptive Soviet analysts felt that Richard M. Nixon was victimized for his policy of detente. Even in Reykjavik Gorbachev suggested that Reagan was prepared to cut a deal but “did not get support” from other members of the U.S. delegation. Later, back in Moscow, the general secretary in two televised speeches attempted to portray a well-meaning--even if confused--U.S. President as a de facto prisoner of the American “military-industrial complex.”


Not everybody in the Soviet capital would buy such a simplistic interpretation, but few would dismiss it out of hand. Also, as Georgi Arbatov, Gorbachev’s adviser on the United States, has argued, a weakened U.S. Administration is not quite a blessing for the Kremlin. The Soviets perceive the United States as both an adversary and a partner. They are pleased when America fails to compete effectively. Still, they want the U.S. government to have enough authority to cut an arms agreement. A stalemate in Washington between the Administration and Congress presents problems for Moscow.

Another factor balancing the Soviet satisfaction over Reagan’s predicament is a fear that the President may try another Grenada in order to improve his domestic fortunes. Soviet strategists do not see any suitable targets for risk-free U.S. military operations. But they are nervous that something may unexpectedly come out of nowhere--another Syrian-connected terrorist act, for instance--too tempting for Reagan to avoid a military response.

A direct collision with America is hardly on Gorbachev’s agenda. There is little likelihood that the Soviets would stage an artificial confrontation just to test the wounded Reagan Administration.

A more realistic prospect is that the Soviet leadership will decide to treat Reagan as a lame duck and postpone any serious negotiations until he leaves office. Up to now, Moscow had held a grudging admiration for the President’s political skills. So impressed were the Soviets with Reagan’s winning hand that their media unanimously predicted continuing Republican control over the Senate.

The Democratic Party victory came as a surprise to Moscow, causing an immediate reassessment of how to deal with Washington. East European diplomats claim that the first sign of their assessment was Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze’s failure, contrary to both tradition and Gorbachev’s effort to consult allies, to share with Warsaw Pact associates an advanced text of his speech at the European security conference in Vienna on Nov. 5. According to these sources, the initial draft prepared before the elections was more accommodating toward the United States and had to be toughened when the outcome became known.

The Iran- contra scandal has contributed to the Soviet impression of a crippled Administration. But the Soviets are not sure yet how serious the injury and how long it will last. The Politburo will not offer Reagan a helping hand by entering arms accords that may restore his political momentum. That leaves the U.S.-Soviet relationship not exactly in mortal danger, but definitely on ice. No progress with Moscow is possible as long as things are not sorted out at home.