Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze arrived in Tehran Saturday for a rare audience with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that promises a thaw in long-strained relations between the neighbors.

The official Islamic Republic News Agency said Shevardnadze, the highest-ranking Soviet official to visit Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, carried a message for Khomeini from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. IRNA gave no hint about the letter's contents.Shevardnadze is on the final leg of a 10-day mission aimed at boosting Moscow's influence in the Middle East.

Shevardnadze has refused to say whether he will discuss with Khomeini the Iranian leader's death sentence on British novelist Salman Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

West European countries have recalled their senior diplomats from Tehran in protest of the threat. Sources in London said Friday that Britain had asked Shevardnadze to press Iran to renounce its death threat.

Moscow was the main arms supplier to Iraq, Iran's enemy in the eight-year war, and it withdrew thousands of technicians from Tehran when the fighting began.

IRNA did not say when Shevardnadze will meet Iran's revolutionary 88-year-old patriarch, who seldom meets with foreign dignitaries.

Khomeini sent Gorbachev an unprecedented personal message last month, praising his reforms and urging him to pay more attention to the Soviets' spiritual needs.

Officials in both countries called the message a "turning point" in relations, which also have been improved by the Soviet military withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan and greater religious freedoms granted the 50 million Moslems in the Soviet Union.

Tehran's English-language daily, Kayhan International, said Shevardnadze's three-day visit heralds closer ties. "There is wide scope for Iran and the Soviet Union to cooperate on the regional and international scene."

IRNA reported Shevardnadze was greeted at Tehran's Mehrabad airport by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and other senior officials. Shevardnadze flew to Iran directly from Baghdad, Iraq's capital.

Before leaving, he called for the withdrawal of foreign navies from the Persian Gulf and said Moscow is ready to pull out its warships to help revive deadlocked Iran-Iraq peace talks that began after a cease-fire took effect Aug. 20. His remarks at a news conference appeared pointed at the United States, which has 23 ships in the waterway.