Hostages wait as Iran locked in power play

The anguish of the 50 American hostages in the Embassy in Tehran -- and of their families in the United States -- has been prolonged yet again by the fierce power struggle for ultimate control of post-revolutionary Iran.

The new impasse is the surface evidence of hard-nosed infighting by the forces of extreme clerical fundamentalism (and possibly of the extreme Left) to prevent the relatively moderate President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, from consolidating his otherwise slowly growing power.

There had been renewed hope that the hostages, now entering their 19th week of captivity, would be pried loose of the student gunmen over the weekend. But that hope has been dampened, if not destroyed, by the new argument between their captors and the ruling Revolutionary Council, ostensibly over procedures for the handover.

Late March 9, Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh gave the students 24 hours to either hand over the hostages or let the UN commission of inquiry visit them. Earlier he told newsmen flatly that he was convinced the students had no intention of surrendering the hostages. By insisting that any handover scheduled be publicized, the students were trying to prompt mass demonstrations to block removal of the hostages from the US Embassy, he added

It appears that Iran's militant and fundamentalist forces are using the hostages issue against the President since this is one of the few areas in which he has been consistently outmaneuvered. And one of the leaders of this effort is yet another of Iran's religious figures: Ayatollah Muhammad Khoeyni.

Respected in the religious center of Qom, Ayatollah Khoeyni is also a skillful and subtle politician. Guide and mentor to the student militants, his hand can be seen in much of the haggling over the hostage issue. His anti-Bani-Sadr stand became even more visible over the weekend when his name appeared on the list of Islamic Republican Party (IRP) candidates for the new Majlis (parliament). Much of the opposition to President Bani-Sadr is gathered together under the banner of the IRP, the political wing of the fundamentalists.

While the hostage issue understandably preoccupies Americans, it is the Majlis election around which the current Iranian power struggle centers. Once the election is complete (probably in two stages, March 14 and early April), the Majlis will replace the present Revolutionary Council. President Bani-Sadr needs to get enough of his backers into the new parliament to cement his power. Meanwhile, both he and the Americans in the embassy can all to easily be held hostage to the extremists fighting a rear-guard action against him.

The role of Ayatollah Khomeini in all this may seem, at the least to outsiders, equivocal. There is no doubt that Mr. Bani-Sadr was his choice for the presidency. Since Mr. Bani-Sadr's victory, the Ayatollah has indicated his confidence in him by turning over to him the titular role of commander in chief of the armed forces.

Yet the patriarchal religious leader holds back from public support of Mr. Bani-Sadr in the latter's tightrope efforts to get the American hostages out of the hands of student-militants with guns and into the more civilized custody of the Revolutionary Council. There are two likely reasons for this:

* First, the Ayatollah sees his role as that of "vox populi" as well as that of "vox dei" -- as expressing popular as well as divine will. He recognizes that he is the only unifying force in a still troubled revolutionary Iran.

Elements anathema to him are still at work, and men not necessarily anathema to him are struggling divisively for power in the name of his leadership. Thus, when he takes sides, he often does so with subtlety. Sometimes this results in his seeming to outsiders to be leading from behind.

* Second, there is evidence (as in his handing over titular command of the armed forces) that he genuinely wants to withdraw from day-to-day decisionmaking at the secular level and to reinforce his Imam-like position as religious guardian of the land and people.

Whatever the extreme Left may be doing to undermine Mr. Bani-Sadr, it is less in the open than the maneuvering of the IRP.

For the first year of the revolution, their most ambitious figure was Ayatollah Muhammad Hossein Beheshti. He was known to want the presidency of the republic. But Ayatollah Khomeini ruled that out by saying that office should be filled by a layman. Since then, Ayatollah Khomeini has made Ayatollah Beheshti chief justice -- perhaps as a consolation prize.

But the fundamentalists still have their men on the Revolutionary Council. And while the evidence is that they now support the call to the students to surrender the hostages to the council, they are resisting Mr. Bani-Sadr's attempts to confine voting for the new parliament to one round on March 14.

The consensus is that a single round would help Mr. Bani-Sadr, two rounds the fundamentalists. And since Ayatollah Khomeini has delegated ultimate responsibility for the hostages to the Majlis, a swift election could also accelerate a final decision on that issue.

The fundamentalists are also hanging on to the influential positions they have had in running radio and television by obstructing appointment of a new controlling body until after the parliamentary election. In the meantime, remaining hard-liners in the radio and television tend to put out news reports favoring the student militants and harmful to mr. Bani-Sadr.

The most obvious casualties of all this scheming and infighting are the American hostages. The Iranian leaders have ruled out force to extract them from the embassy compound. The US government fears that additional pressure could well be counterproductive.

The deadlock drags on, leaving the UN commission of inquiry apparently unable to complete its task. And the whole delicate plan put together by UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim wobbles uncertainly as Americans hold their breath.

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