The military in Iran are now being flailed most savagely by the religious fundamentalists in an effort to break the murderous stalemate with the secularists, which has prevented effective government for so many long months.
Gen. Ahmad Mohaqeqi, former commander of the fighter base at Mehrabad (Tehran's main civilian and military airfield), was executed by firing squad July 20, together with four other men of lesser rank in the Air Force. They are the first batch to have been summarily tried and sentenced in the wake of the plot against Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic reportedly foiled last week. Between 300 and 600 are said to be awaiting court appearances.
The military, trained before the revolution in a pattern of almost Prussian personal loyalty to the Shah, have been doubly suspect since the failure in April of the US attempt to rescue the Americans held hostage since November of last year. Iranian Air Force planes strafed and destroyed the helicopters that the rescue team was obliged to abandon in the desert at Tabas. This roused suspicions in some quarters that the action was taken by Iranian Air Force personnel, perhaps intended to be party to the US action, as a means of protecting secrets or incriminating material left behind.
Along with these suspicions has gone a near paranoia about a repetition of the US initiative in 1953 in behalf of the then-temporarily ousted Shah against the revolutionaries of that era, headed by the late Muhammad Mossadeq. The latter was deposed in that action through a combined operation of the Iranian military and the US Central Intelligence Agency, which put the Shah back on the throne. Last week, Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr described the atmosphere in Iran as parallel to that of 1953.
Continued detention of the American hostages serves in part as a lever in the hands of the fundamentalists against any hypothetical US-backed coup attempt. It is interesting that one hears less insistence today from Tehran on the hostages being traded to secure the return of the Shah to face trial in Iran.
Because broadcasts from revolutionary transmitters outside Iran (thought to be in neighboring Iraq and Egypt) carry material supportive of and sometimes originating from former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar, the latter is seen as the likeliest civilian figure whom coup-backers might use to replace the current regime, operating under the guardianship of Ayatollah Khomeini. Mr. Bakhtiar was the target of an assassination attempt in Paris at the weekend.
But if the military are bearing the brunt of the fundamentalists' inquisition at the moment, close behind them under attack are:
* The nationalists of the National Front who tend to be secular and who are the heirs of the anti-Shah movement of the 1950s associated with the late Muhammad Mossadeq.
* The person of Adm. Ahmad Madani who ran a rather poor second to Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in last January's presidential election and who has now refused to take his seat in Parliament because of the fundamentalists' campaign against him. He has always been regarded as an ambitious man who is a closet secularist.
* The Islamic leftists represented by the Mujahadeen-e Khalq, youthful and with a well-armed and well-organized core. The fundamentalists represent the Mujahadeen as secularist, Marxist wolves trying to hide in the sheep's clothing of Islamic phraseology.
In all these crosscurrents, President Bani-Sadr -- originally elected with Ayatollah Khomeini's blessing -- holds on by the skin of his teeth in his efforts to block an ultimate and complete triumph of the most hard-line fundamentalists. But he is having to compromise more and more with them (and thereby tacitly conceding his ineffectiveness) merely to survive. At the same time, the fundamentalists remain thwarted in their aim of seizing all the reins of power and extending their control effectively from the center outward to the periphery. Hence their fury and frustration.
As for the 52 American hostages, the internal Iranian power struggle that helped precipitate their seizure nearly nine months ago operates now to prevent their release.