MOSCOW, FEB. 5 -- The Soviet Union today stepped up its attempts to limit the Persian Gulf War by dispatching an envoy to Iran for talks on a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Before leaving Moscow for Tehran, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Belonogov said the war was "getting out of control" and doing "irreparable harm" to the Iraqi people. But he repeated Soviet calls for an Iraqi military withdrawal from Kuwait as a precondition for any peace initiative.
The Kremlin has been generally supportive of the U.S.-led military campaign to force Iraqi forces out of Kuwait but has indicated that its backing does not extend to the destruction of Iraq. Last week, the Soviet Union joined the United States in offering an end to hostilities if Iraq would immediately pull out of Kuwait.
Western diplomats here said the Soviet leadership is subtly seeking to distance itself from Washington's conduct of the war in order to preserve its diplomatic influence in the Middle East and to defuse domestic criticism. Disapproval at the Soviet Union's essentially subordinate role in the crisis surfaced at a meeting of Communist Party leaders last weekend.
In a defense of the official Kremlin position, Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh told the party's policy-making Central Committee that Moscow was attempting to "localize, limit, and end the conflict" as rapidly as possible. Bessmertnykh also sought to defuse concern about an ecological threat to the Soviet Union's southern border regions because of the mishandling of nuclear or chemical weapons.
Another Gorbachev aide, writer Boris Oleinik, earlier had warned that southern parts of the Soviet Union could be threatened by a second Chernobyl disaster in the event of broader hostilities. Describing Soviet diplomatic efforts to prevent the outbreak of war as insufficient, he called for an immediate convening of the United Nations Security Council to prevent the "methodical execution of entire peoples."
The Soviet news agency Tass reported Monday that members of the international affairs committee of the Soviet legislature felt that U.S.-led forces were exceeding their United Nations mandate in taking the war into Iraqi territory.
The Central Committee adopted a resolution calling on the Soviet leadership to take "the necessary additional steps before the international community and the United Nations to end the bloodshed." The resolution said Soviet diplomacy should aim at preventing "irretrievable damage to the environment" and promoting a political solution to the conflict.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Vitaly Churkin, described Belonogov's two-day mission to Tehran as part of an overall Soviet peace drive, but denied that the Soviet envoy was taking any major initiative with him. Iran has offered to mediate in the war. Last week, it hosted Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saadoun Hammadi.
Asked whether Belonogov would meet Iraqi officials in Tehran, Churkin said that such talks could not be ruled out if the Iraqi side expressed an interest. "When he left here, there were no specific plans to meet the Iraqis, but who knows? Things may change during his presence in Tehran," he said.
The Soviet Union, which supplied Baghdad with Scud missiles and other arms now being used to attack allied forces, has withdrawn most of its nationals from Iraq and Kuwait. Soviet officials say all Soviet military advisers have been withdrawn from Iraq, but the Soviet Embassy in Baghdad remains open, with a staff of 13.
On Soviet TV Monday, Iraqi Ambassador to Moscow Ghafil Jassim Hussain complained that the Soviet media had been biased in favor of the United States. Soviet journalists have covered the war from both sides. "They have not spoken about the barbaric aggression and the killing of children, women, and old people. We consider this not to be compatible with the process of glasnost which is taking place in Soviet society," the ambassador said.
At today's Foreign Ministry news briefing, Churkin said there was some concern in Moscow that the escalation of the war could lead to the devastation of Iraq, a development that would go "far beyond" U.N. resolutions.
"We are firmly behind the U.N. Security Council resolutions. But we should also keep in mind the goals of those resolutions, and they are the liberation of Kuwait," Churkin said.