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But not all Iranians are still behind the Ayatollah

By Leslie KeithSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 22, 1980



"One of our targets was to bomb the Imam's [Ayatollah Khomeini's] home in Tehran," said an Iranian Air Force major arrested after the discovery of the conspiracy to overthrow the government.

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"Of course, I was against this from the beginning, because I thought that if we bombed the Imam's home, 5 or 6 million people would have come out onto the streets and obstructed our operation," he added during his interrogation.

The pilot's estimate of millions taking to the streets was no doubt based on the number that turned out to greet Ayatollah Khomeini when he returned to Iran from Paris in February 1979.

But whether the Ayatollah still has that kind of backing a year and a half after coming to power is doubtful. Consistent reports from south Tehran, where the lower-class slum dwellers are concentrated, are that the Ayatollah's regime has lost considerable support there over the last 18 months.

A woman doctor who works in a south tehran clinic several days a week says: "They all talk openly against Khomeini and the mullahs there. They do not like the regime."

This poorest section of the people would almost certainly have sat out the coup and not allowed themselves to become new "martyrs of the revolution" -- the cannon fodder of the mullahs. They have not benefited from the regime. If anything, their condition has worsened with massive unemployment and rampant inflation.

But the same doctor, who also works in a clinic in eastern Tehran on other days of the week, adds: "Khomeini's support in eastern Tehran is still massive. They worship him there. Most of the people who turn out for those huge demonstrations to express support for the regime come from this area."

People living in eastern Tehran are mainly lower middle class. They are the ones who have benefited most from the regime. They have moved into better apartments, and have been given new jobs because of their "Islamic leanings." The mullahs' cannon fodder would probably have come from here.

Expressing the same assessments on a countrywide scale, it could probably be said that if the lower-middle-class people of eastern Tehran are the equivalent of the small-town people in rural Iran, then the lower-class people in south Tehran would represent the peasantry in the villages.

Assuming again that the coup succeeded and that Ayatollah Khomeini's lower-middle-class supporters had been beaten down by the dissidents in the military, the junta that would have come to power would still have had to face two other important elements.

One of these would have been men in the armed forces themselves who might well have given them a stiff fight. Despite rumors of discontent among the armed forces, the regime still has a considerable following in the military, particularly among the lower ranks. The conspirators apparently foresaw this and planned -- according to the story put out by the authorities -- to bombard the military bases and garrisons that did not immediately declare their allegiance to the junta. One way or another, the split in the Army would probably have resulted in prolonged fighting.

The second element facing any projected junta would have been the leftists -- mainly the Mujahadeen-e Khalq and the Fedayeen-e Khalq guerrilla organizations. These groups are heavily armed and have in the last 18 months acquired thousands of new members and supporters.

Having suffered under the mullahs themselves, they have gone underground today.They would probably have sat out the coup to allow the regime to collapse, but would later almost certainly have come out to challenge the junta with armed resistance -- particularly if there was the slightest indication of any pro-American leanings among the junta.

Speaking during his partially televised interrogation, the Air Force major disclosed misgiving among the plotters about whether or not the plot could have succeeded.

One Western observer was more outright in his condemnation of the plot. "It could not have succeeded because it was so sloppily planned," he said.

Similar sentiments have been expressed by other observers, including Iranian ones. By general consensus, not only was the plan badly conceived as a military operation, but the conspirators also paid scant attention to an important element -- secrecy.

One indication of this came the Air Force major. Asked during his interrogation how he came to be involved in the conspiracy, he replied blandly: "A few days ago a friend of mine approached me and said he a group of others were going to stage a coup d'etat. He asked me if I would like to join. I agreed."

It sounded as though he had been invited to a picnic and had agreed to go along.

But precisely how successful the coup could have been if it had not been discovered has become another conversation piece in Iran. Had it been put into operation with all the brutality described by the authorities, it is possible the plotters would have succeeded in wiping out a large section of the regime's top leadership.