Due to a typographical error, a word was omitted from a sentence in an article in yesterday's Post about Soviet military movements near the Iranian border. The sentence should have read: "The newly reported Soviet military activity near Iran is said to be centered in the Transcaucusus military region, north of the Iranian city of Tabriz."
Soviet military forces just north of the Iranian border have engaged in unusual maneuvers and mobilization since President Carter's commitment two weeks ago to defend the Persian Gulf region, according to informed U.S. officials.
The activity, described as "an early stage" of increased readiness, has been the cause of concern and the subject of high-level scrutiny here for at least a week.
Officials said yesterday that they do not know the purpose of the Soviet movements, but they did not rule out either political pressure on Iran or an eventual Soviet invasion of that country.
There was speculation that the military activity may be related to a possible need to reinforce Soviet troops engaged in the difficult job of establishing full control of Afghanistan, Iran's neighbor to the east.
While military fights and truck convoys to Afghanistan continue to add to the Soviet force there, now estimated at more than 90,000 and growing, Soviet diplomats and press functionaries in several places around the world were reported to be suggesting that a limited withdrawal of Moscow's forces will begin soon.
In one case, the figure of 3,500 troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan is said to have been mentioned. No official diplomatic notification of withdrawals was reported.
In recent days, U.S. officials have anticipated the announcement of Soviet withdrawals in an effort to sap the forces of the western campaign against the Moscow Olympics this summer and other Western retaliatory measures.
However, the American officials said they do not believe the Soviets are planning to mount a large-scale evacuation from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.
The newly reported Soviet military acitivy near Iran is said to be centered in the Transcaucusus military region of the Iranian city of Tabriz. This is west of the Caspian Sea and far from Afghanistan.
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter, in the first public acknowledgment of the U.S. intelligence data, said yesterday that Soviet military units along the northwest Iranian border have been engaged in a "high level of activity."
He said the activity was mostly training and troop movements to and from the area, and that it is being carefully monitored by the United States.
Among the indications that reportedly caught the attention of U.S. intelligence was a systematic increase in the strength of Soviet border force units in this area. The units usually are maintained at one-third to one-half strength. Other notable signs were the deployment of troops and equipment in areas outside their normal pattern for this time of the year, and the collection of ammunition and equipment on pallets to facilitate movement.
Similar activity was detected among Soviet border forces north of Afghanistan nearly a month before the land invasion of that country Dec. 27. But officials were quick to say that just because the Soviets in that case went all the way up the intervention scale to all-out invasion, there is no evidence they will do the same in Iran.
Carter has sought to deter the Soviets from going beyond Afghanistan by reiterating U.S. commitments to the territorial integrity of Pakistan and announcing a U.S. commitment to repel "any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region."
Iran is on the Persian Gulf, and the oil fields dotted along the Iranian coast of the gulf are of major strategic importance, as well as economically important to Western Europe and Japan.
In a display of deliberate ambiguity, President Carter did not specify what he means by "the Persian Gulf region" in his State of the Union announcement Jan. 23, but it was generally assumed that he meant at least the oil field area and perhaps all of Iran.
Officials said military studies and contingency plans that include a Soviet thrust into Iran have been worked on extensively since the Nov. 4 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by militant Iranian students. A lengthy study, completed nearly a year ago, estimated that Soviet divisions north of Iran could be mobilized and moved into northwest Iran in about a month.
Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has briefed several congressional committees in detail this week about the formidable task that would face a Soviet force seeking to move rapidly from the northwest border of Iran to the oil fields.
Any such force would have to cross a mountainous region with sparse and poorly maintained roads and more than 300 "choke points," such as bridges and narrow passes, according to Jones. He also pointed out that Soviet combat air support would be difficult from bases in the Soviet Union or Afghanistan, while an invading force would be within the range of U.S. jets from the carrier task forces near the Persian Gulf.
The possibility that a Soviet buildup north of Iran might be politically motivated was given credence in the eyes of some U.S. officials by a Jan. 31 broadcast by the clandestine National Voice of Iran, believed to be operated by the Soviet Union from transmitters in Baku. The broadcast called for an end to efforts mounted from Iran to aid rebels fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Although the broadcast did not mention him by name, it is believed to have been aimed at comments several days earlier by Iran's newly elected president, Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, declaring that Iran will support the Afghanistan rebels. Bani-Sadr also warned of the danger to Iran from the Soviet Union.
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December, the United States has repeatedly sought to convince Iran that its real danger is from the traditional Soviet enemy to the north rather than from American power centered halfway around the world.
Washington's conviction was that the more Moscow was seen as the main threat, the more quickly Iranian authorities would move to settle their dispute with the United States by releasing the American hostages.
To this extent, the reported beginning of Soviet mobilization north of Iran serves Washington's interest. But officials here gave no sign of being happy or even comfortable about it.