Iran edges away from extremism

The results of the presidential election in Iran are the first visible sign that the political pendulum is edging back from the extreme position where it has been stuck since the ouster of the Shah a year ago and the triumph of the revolution less than a month later.

That extreme has seen religious fundamentals, symbolized by Ayatollah Khomeini, gain virtually complete control. Prior to this swing, the pendulum had been locked at the opposite extreme, with complete control in secular hands -- those of the Shah.

In as free a choice as they have had in many a long day, Iranian voters have put in first and second place in the presidential race the two candidates thought to be backed by those having the most misgivings about letting the Muslim clergy run the country.

Almost certain to be president, with most of the votes now counted, is Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. Early Jan. 27, he was reported to have over five million votes. In second place was former Navy commander Ahmad Madani, with just over a million votes. Significantly, the man identified as the favorite of the fundamentalist clergy, Hassan Habibi, was trailing far behind with about 400,000 votes.

But Westerners should keep these results in an Iranian perspective and refrain from interpreting them in Western terms. Iran is likely to remain an Islamic republic, with the shia Muslim leadership retaining at least veto power over any government's initiatives clearly seen as offensive to Shia Islam.

Mr. Bani-Sadr is himself the son of a respected Muslim cleric. He is an Iranian -- perhaps more specifically, a Persian nation- alist. He knows his history and therefore is aware of the Russian threat to his country. He certainly is not a communist. Yet at the same time, he is not pro-Western and, as a devout Muslim, sees the excesses of Western capitalism as abhorrent.

MR. Bani-Sadr's eventual assumption of the presidency may facilitate release of the 50 hostages held in the US Embassy in Tehran. But both his political and personal instincts will militate against anything that might seem kowtowing to Washington.

The game will be to establish overall equidistance between the United States and the Soviet Union, and to use one as a counterweight against the other. In an earlier age, when Persia was caught between the Russians and the British, that was how Persia's rulers dealt with those two.

As recently as the early 1950s, Russians and Britons were the most disliked and distrusted of foreigners in Iran -- but that was before the US got into the act. Today, Americans must expect to have to share Iranian mistrust with the Russians, now that Washington has taken over the earlier British role as loathed (but needed) counterweight to a loathed (but inescapable) Moscow.

What was Mr. Bani-Sadr's particular appeal to the voters?

First of all, he came through as more consistent, more genuinely Persian, and possibly less opportunistic than the other two lay figures of his generation who accompanied Ayatollah Khomeini back from exile just under a year ago. The other two are Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, trailing well behind in the presidential race, and former foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi, whose presidential hopes were dashed in the turmoil immediately following the seizure of the US hostages in November.

Second, Mr. Bani-Sadr's strong suit is economics. His lectures and written works were on the record even before the revolution. And most Iranians are aware that their country urgently needs to be put economically on its feet again after the boom-and-bust excesses of the Shah's reign and after the uncertainties of the past year.

In conventional Western terms, Mr. Bani- Sadr's economic theories might seem less than reassuring. But the great mass of Iranians and the Muslim clergy find conventional Western economic practices unattractive after their experience under the Shah. Conventional Marxist theory is equally distasteful.

Mr. Bani-Sadr offers his own theories, born of Shia Muslim theology and European radical ideology, which influenced him during his years at the Sorbonne in Paris. This he offers as an indegenous economic blueprint for social justice in a Muslim state, worthy of acceptance because it is not an alien import like Marxism or Western capitalism.

(In practice it is likely to mean nationalization of the biggest enterprises side-by-side with respect for the more modest private properties or businesses traditionally found in the bazaar. Whether implementation of any such program will bring stability or social justice remains to be seen.)

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