The U.S. Embassy plans to lodge formal protests with the Soviet Foreign Ministry and Pravda over what the State Department considers an "inflammatory" commentary in the official Communist Party newspaper Thursday criticizing recent American actions in strife-torn Iran.
The protest will be in the form of a verbal complaint to the foreign ministry after the New Year's holiday and a letter of complaint to Pravda's editors, on instructions from the State Department that apparently arrived too late for action today, American sources said.
The Pravda commentary alleged that the United States is "sending a special 60-man political and intelligence team to Tehran to help find a political solution to the current turmoil that would protect U.S. interests."
"Disturbing, inflammatory, a complete distortion," said one highly placed Western source of the Pravda account, which he said referred to a recent U.S. decision to send about five extra staffers to the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital.
The Americans here are rankled as well that the Pravda account is being beamed by Radio Moscow in Persian-language broadcasts into Iran. "This is a rather unhappy turn of events," said one source.
The Western diplomatic view here is that the Soviets in recent weeks have been showing clear signs of backing away from their earlier policy of silent support of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and are now hedging their bets in the event that the monarch is driven from power.
At the same time, informed sources say there is no evidence of active Soviet maneuvering either directly or indirectly against the shah or on behalf of his adversaries after months of rioting and turmoil that has brought normal life and commerce in the pro-Western oil-rich nation virually to a standstill.
The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this week from Tehran, however, that "a highly reliable Western source" claimed Soviet Jet fighters had penetrated deep into Iranian territory on Dec. 10.
The source further alleged that "several skilled Soviet aircraft technicians" had infiltrated the main Iranian military air base at Tabriz near the Soviet border and sabotaged several American made jet fighters. Previous reports from Iran had indicated that the sabotage was carried out by dissident elements in the Iranian Air Force.
American concern over Soviet intentions toward Iran has been high ever since an abrupt warning last month from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to the United States that "any interference, especially military interference in the affairs of Iran... would be regarded by the U.S.S.R. as a matter affecting its security interests."
Reliable sources here say Moscow has initiated a partial air evacuation of Soviet advisers or their families outside Tehran, but that there are no signs of Soviet military activity along the border with Iran. The Soviets long have been engaged in a number of massive industrial and hydroelectric projects in Iran.
It is understood here that the U.S. at the recent bilateral strategic arms talks in Geneva reassured the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that Washington has no intention to intervene militarily to preserve the Shah's rule.
However, reports that the Carter administration may send an American aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf would inevitably increase Soviet nervousness over U.S. intentions, in the view of diplomats here. They added that such a move would require careful prior notice to the Kremlin to avoid a confrontation between the two superpowers.