Iran: a nation torn between extremes

Exactly one year ago, the pendulum in Iran started its inexorable swing from one artificial extreme to another. For it was exactly one year ago, on Jan. 16, that the Shah left Iran. The door then opened for the return from exile of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini two weeks later. Neither Iran, nor the world, has been the same since.

Inside Iran, the Ayatollah's tumultuous homecoming swung the pendulum to an opposite extreme where religious fundamentalism, not a secular authority, assumed a monopoly of power. Today's turmoil is the result of efforts to get the pendulum back from this extreme.

Persian public fury at the United States, in particular, stems from what Iranians see as an American refusal to recognize either the sea-change wrought by the revolution or the offense to Persian identity and values caused by Washington's patronage of the Shah.

The repercussions of the revolution have been global not simply because of Iran's strategic geographic location or because of its significant contribution to the entire noncommunist world's desperately needed oil supply.

The impact of events in Iran also has been -- and continues to be -- worldwide because they bring together in one spot so many of the conflicting currents wracking mankind in these last decades of the 20th century. These include:

* The struggle of religion, traditional and otherwise, for men's minds.

* The struggle between the rich and poor of the world, whether at the national or the class level.

* The assertion by peoples -- after eclipse or domination for centuries by traditional white, European, and usually Christian power -- of their right to a say in running the world and to deciding their futures.

* The struggle for control of the earth's dimishing material resources (in this case, oil)

* And, of course, the very obvious clash between the superpowers, starkly underlined by the latest developments in neighboring Afghanistan.

This writer recalls standing for an hour on the day of the Shah's departure in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran, Iran, surrounded by jubilant people of all ages. They were singing, dancing, distributing candy in all directions, as is the Persian wont on happy occasions. all that mattered for them at that moment was that the Shah at last had gone.

They had mounted a truly people's revolution. They knew innately that under the Shah things had gone wrong. They would not necessarily have expressed it this way, but, in fact the Shah had flouted Persian history by forcing the pendulum over to an unnatural extreme and holding it there for 15 years.

That extreme was the monopolizing of power within the state in secular hands -- his own -- and excluding the religious leadership from any role in the polity of Iran. By late 1978, a consensus had developed that the pendulum must be forced from this unnatural extreme. Most hands, often from conflicting parts of the political spectrum, cooperated in the effort. when the Shah left, they knew they had won.

But they were not immediately conscious of the law of political physics which would tend to dictate the swing of the pendulum to the other extreme, giving a monopoly of power in the land to the fundamentalist religious leadership. Ayatollah Khomeini's authority symbolizes that.

In terms of Persian history over the past 500 years, both extremes are artificial. The Persian polity has functioned and survived as such over recent centuries only when there was interplay between secular and religious power.

During the last 15 years of the shah's reign, he prevented such interplay. The religious fundamentalists since Ayatollah Khomeini's return -- and usually with his blessing -- have similarly done their best to prevent it. Their influence was on the wane before the seizure of the hostages in the US Embassy ten weeks ago, but they have managed to use that incident to regain some ground.

The struggle between them and those who believe power should at least be shared between secular and religious leaders how has moved to the presidential election, the first stage of which is scheduled for Jan. 25.

Release of the hostages is unlikely before then. The lock on Persian opinion won by the hostage-holders (largely through television exposure) gives them a potential role in this election similar to that of the China lobby in US presidential elections in the 1960s.

Any candidate wanting to win in this month's election in Iran -- even if he believes compromise over the hostages in desirable, especially with Soviet troops now on the Afghan border -- is going to have to seem to be a hardliner on the question until the election is over.

The less publicity given the hostage-holders -- particularly by the US media -- the easier it might become to break their nearveto power over any move to free the hostages.

At least two of the leading candidates in the presidential election, Abolhassan Bani- Sadr and Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, seemed initially inclined toward compromise over the hostages, apparently because of a perception that an ultimate showdown with the US would be harmful to Iran's long-term interest. Both men backed away from compromise when the hostage-holders blew the whistle via their mass exposure in the US media.

Now we have Mr. Ghotbzadeh playing a key role in ousting US correspondents from Iran. Simultaneously, he privately confirmed UN Secretary-General Kurt Walheim's acceptability as a mediator on the hostage question while saying the opposite publicly. The two moves may dovetial rather than be contradictory.

Ironically enough, less publicity for the hostage-holders may be prerequisite for eventual successful negotiation. It would, in fact, be a deliciously face-saving Persian move to conceal an accommodation made in the country's long-term self-interest under the veil of an action that appears on the surface to be motivated by honor-saving spite or prideful national revenge.

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