"The focal point of the aspirations of the Soviet Union," Stalin's foreign minister, V. M. Molotov, secretly told the Germans during the 1939-41 Hitler-Stalin Pact, "is south of Batum and Baku and in the general direction of the Persian Gulf."

The area that Molotov was describing encompasses eastern Turkey, Irak and Iraq. The post-war history of Soviet diplomacy -- and military power plays -- demonstrates that Molotov knew what he was talking about, and what Stalin wanted.

Any understanding of what is happening in Iran today, including the Khomeini regime's grievances against the United States, must begin with the historical record. For it is a record full of instances involving the worldwide Soviet-American rivalry and confrontation that has dominated the decades since the end of World War ii. Stalin is long since dead, but there is no reason to believe that Soviet "aspirations have undergone any fundamental change in that part of the world.

The counter-aspiration of the United States was to deny Iran to the Soviet Union. This aspiration was based on geopolitical considerations; that Iran had oil was simply an incremental consideration, not the primary one.

But the Soviet-American conflict over Iran did not surface in the years of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. And that era was followed by a period of wartime cooperation. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union and the United States entered World War ii, both in 1941, Moscow and Washington became allies, though often uncomfortable, against Hitler.

To send aid to embattled Russia, first Britain and then the United States had only two major routes, via the dangerous sea route north to Murmansk or via Iran. Back in 1907 a convention between imperial Britain and czarist Russia had made northern Iran a Russian sphere of influence and southern Iran a British sphere. During World War ii, in the summer before American entry, Russia and Britain again sent troops into Iran, dividing it into similar spheres with Tehran under joint protection of the two nations. The United States later joined with Britain in its sphere of influence, and much American food and war materiel flowed through Iran to aid Stalin's armies and people.

A second consideration in the Anglo-Russian occupation of Iran was the belief that the shah was pro-Nazi; he was forced to abdicate and his son, the man at the center of today's controversy, came to the throne. In 1943, when Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Tehran for a critical conference on war and post-war problems, Iran played no part.

At World War ii's end, Russia, America and Britain were obligated to withdraw their troops, and the Western allies complied in early 1946. But the Soviets delayed, meanwhile aiding and abetting creation in late 1945, of an Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan, under leadership of an Iranian who had been involved in a short-lived communist-sponsored state in the same area after World War i. This, of course, is the same Azerbaijan that today has been demanding, under one ayatollah's leadership, autonomy from the Khomeini regime in Tehran.

It should be noted here, too, that Moscow put a great deal of pressure on Turkey, Stalin even asking for cession of former czarist districts in Eastern Turkey that are "south of Batum," in Molotov's phrase. Moscow's opportunities in Iraq, between Turkey and Iran, centered on the rebellious Kurds. At war's end Moscow supported a Kurdish People's Republic in Iran in which Iraqi Kurds and Kurdish communists joined in a short-lived united front, Iraq, too, is"south of Batum and Baku and in the general direction of the Persian Gulf."

The Soviet efforts at expansionism to the south included negotiation with a compliant Iranian prime minister for a Soviet-Iranian oil exploitation concern, 51 percent to be owned by Moscow. Stalin talked to the American ambassador of Russia's need for Iranian oil, but President Truman served Stalin with a virtual ultimatum to get out of Iran. Iran's oil also was on the American government's mind, but it seems to me a misplaced emphasis to state, as Daniel Yergin does in his book "Shattered Peace," that oil was "very much at the heart of the Iranian crisis . . . ." He is, however, correct in concluding that the crisis of March 1946 was "a landmark in the development of the Cold War."

The end result was Stalin's order to pull out his troops, the collapse of the communist regimes, Tehran's refusal to ratify the Soviet-Iranian oil deal and Iran's being solidly lodged in the American sphere of influence. o

Stalin's Soviet Union had been rebuffed in its efforts to recreate the czarist spheres of influence on its southern border. As Adam Ulam has put it, "to the Western world this Soviet dynamism smacked of monstrous aggressiveness," especially as it was paralleled by Moscow's consolidation of control in Eastern Europs. But Yergin also is right to say that "the United States, as much as Russia, was an expansionist power on the scene."

Oil in Iran came under control, then, not of a Soviet-Iranian concern but of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Iranian oil became more and more important to the West, and the shah and his governments were friends of the West. The Truman administration's policy of "containment" of the Soviet Union had succeeded on its southern flank.

But in the 1952 presidential election, "containment" was not enough for the Republican "outs." When Dwight Eisenhower became president his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, set out to add to the NATO alliance in Europe both the SEATO alliance in Asia and a Middle East Defense Organization that would include Iran along with Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan; in sum, a worldwide noose around the Soviet Union and its communist allies. In the Middle East the most Dulles did manage was the Baghdad Pact, later known as the Central Treaty Organization, of Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Britain, with the United States something less than a full member.

In 1951 Iran's parliament nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the refinery was closed down and the industry remained at a standstill until 1954 when the shah agreed to substitute a new consortium of foreign, including American, concerns. But that consortium only came about after the shah had fled his country and been put back on the peacock throne by the 1953 intervention of the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to Kermit Roosevelt, the key American CIA operative, what came to be Operation Ajax was an Anglo-Iranian Oil proposal that won Dulles' approval in June 1953. Ajax succeeded in replacing Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and in returning the shah from Rome to Tehran. For years Allen Dulles, head of the CIA, all but publicly boasted of his agency's role in that Cold War "triumph."

It is evident that, in all the superpower struggles touched on here, Iran has been, for the most part, simply a geographic area of conflict. Oil became increasingly intertwined with geopolitics. The Iranian people, except for the shah and a few other movers and shakers, were essentially incidental players in the many acts of this drama. To appreciate all this, it seems to me, is to have at least a basis for understanding the emotions now at white heat in and about Iran today.