Iran's 'state of extraodinariness'

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Iran's orchestrated ecstasy over its crises with Washington and neighboring Iraq is emerging as a convenient cover for a crackdown on economic and political problems at home.

Officials are vying to coin ever-more-joyful hymns to American sanctions against Iran and to the prospect of confrontation with a "bloodthirsty" Iraq.

Both crises, the officials explained, are a welcome test of Iranian "unity."

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And with all eyes trained on external foes, the government of President Abolhassan Bani-sadr seemed set to parlay national unity an assault on troubles within.

The economy of Iran is at a virtual standstill. Prices and(government-subsidized) wages chase each other skyward. Industrial workers shout more, produce less. Unemployment has been on the rise.

Leftists feel betrayed by a revolution they helped make. Provincial minorities (such as the Kurds in the west, and ethnic Arabs in the oil-producing south) are restless and sometimes violent.

At the time of writing, fires were still blazing around an oil pipeline in the southwest after an attack several days earlier, one Tehran newspaper reported. The fire was forcing the country's main oil refinery into a 30 percent production cut.

Moreover, Iran reportedly has started purchasing food, spare parts, and other essential items in Western Europe to protect against a possible trade embargo.

Mr. Bani-Sadr, a revolutionary by his position, but an economist by training, meanwhile seems to have seized on external crisis to undertake some urgent housecleaning.

Speaking to the nation April 8, he waxed eloquent on just how nice it was that relations were effectively cut with Washington and Baghdad, Iraq. That, after all, was a spur for unity, he pointed out. Then he explained what was nice about unity:

"With these threats . . . our nation knows that all basic changes must be made in an atmosphere of order and security," he said.

"It is not too much to expect the avoidance of strikes, work slowdown, [ factory] occupations, and the avoidance of expectations that cannot be fulfilled."

The President asked for unity. He also asked for "backbreaking work" to rebuild the economy.

There have been other indications of a toughening on the home front amid crisis abroad:

* On the heels of Washington's announcement of sanctions against Iran, a spokesman for the ruling Revolutionary Council declared what some Western media termed a "state of emergency." In an extraordinarily confusing statement, the spokesman actually said the council had considered a proposal from provincial governors to declare a "state of extraordinariness."

That would mean, he was quoted as saying, "an end to consumerism and a freeze on salaries."

* The Islamic Revolution newspaper, in effect Mr. Bani-Sadr's mouthpiece, announced a ban on all demonstrations at the largely leftist Tehran University.

* Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, reacting to the US sanctions, said, "The first step [for Iran] is sacrifice. . . . Those who chant anti-imperialist slogans and plot against our farms and factories should stop their activities."

* Iranian Oil Minister Ali Akbar Moinfar was quoted by a Tehran newspaper April 9 as saying the country was "in a state of war" against sabotage of oil installations and that no mercy would be shown to saboteurs.

* The country's revolutionary prosecutor general said two dozen suspected saboteurs had been rounded up and that some will "be definitely executed."

The question of the 50 American Embassy hostages -- also a one-time catalyst for "unity" in Iran, but lately a focus of internal policy divisions -- has meanwhile been shifted to a back burner.

Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh, speaking to reporters April 9 at the ornate, imperial-era ministry building said the embassy crisis was now at a standstill. He said Iran would "keep it cool" and avoid "revenge" for US sanctions, implying that a still-to-be elected parliament would sort out the hostages' fate, as has been stated repeatedly by Iranian officials in recent weeks.

But the embassy students, even while hosting a small "festival" in front of the captive US million to celebrate the break in relations with Washington, reasserted their voice in Iranian policymaking.

Reviving past threats, the students vowed to kill "all the spy hostages . . . if the [American] government carries out of the slightest military intervention against Iran."

Diplomats saw the practical implications of the statement as minimal, since the envoys assume Washington in effect has ruled out military action.

Yet the threat did reemphasize the fact that it is the militants, not the more moderate Mr. Bani-Sadr, who still physically control the captive Americans. This, in turn, was a reminder of the high stakes in the President's battle to consolidate his own authority and turn the nation's energies to other crises.

Mr. Bani-Sadr has repeatedly argued that Iran can best challenge American "imperialism" by building a strong and independent economy, not by seizing hostages.

The escalating diplomatic crisis with Washington and almost daily Tehran news-media reports of clashes on the border with Iraq seem to have helped Mr. Bani-Sadr seal at least temporary unity.

Meanwhile, even some pro-government commentators seem to trip over their own logic in attempts to link the crisis with Washington to Mr. Bani-Sadr's campaign for a new national direction.

"Relations between Iran and the US have been cut [by Washington]," a Tehran radio commentary said April 9. "The news was morale-boosting, warming, life creating."

After all, the commentator explained a few seconds later, "We were tired of American wheat, rice, meat, eggs, and worthless goods."

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