Why a change of heart in Iran

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There are striking ironies attending the latest cliffhanging speculation about an early release of the US hostage in Iran. One year ago, at the time the hostages were seized, the backdrop was a power struggle in Iran. Today the backdrop is a power struggle in the US -- between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan for the next four years in the White House.

One year ago, there was four years in the White House.

One year ago, there was near unanimous support in Iran for the seizure and continued detention of the hostages. Today there is near unanimous support for their early release. (Whether "spoilers" will manage to block early release is another question.)

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What has produced the changed situation in Iran? The answer is threefold:

1. The fundamentalist, clerical forces that originally grabbed the hostage issue to confound their foes and consolidate their own power have largely achieved their objectives -- though not completely.

2. The Iraqi invasion of Iran has replaced the hostages as an invaluable rallying point for Iranian national unity on the side of the revolution.

3. There appears to be a growing understanding, against the background of the Gulf war and even among some of the most anti-American clerical zealots, that Iran's national interests would be better served by a less absolutely hostile attitude toward the United States -- particularly if this led to the release of spare parts for Iran's US-built and US-trained Air Force. Beyond the Gulf war, there is Iran's historic need for a counterweight to the centuries-old Russian threat on its northern border.

Given these three changes, who are the people who still might try to block early release of the hostages?

Who, for example, was behind the absence last week of enough members of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) to prevent a quorum? Or who was behind the conditions laid down by the parliamentary commission on the hostages -- conditions that still could prevent the hostages being freed within the next few days?

At this stage, it would seem that the potential spoilers are some Islamic leftists, Islamic zealots, or personally ambitious Muslim clerics who feel they have lost out in the coalescence of power over the past year under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fundamentalist banner.

In addition, it should be recalled that quite early in the hostage-crisis the Ayatollah put responsibility for resolving it in the hands of parliament. Now it remains to be seen whether the hostage-holders themselves -- the main stumbling block in earlier release efforts -- would be willing to let them go unless clearly so instructed by Khomeini himself.

Initially the hostages were used by both Ayatollah Khomeini and other fundamentalists to neutralize the moderate and secular nationalist revolutionaries, symbolized by former prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and more recently by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.

The nationalists -- scorned as "liberals" by their rivals -- were a threat to the fundamentalists from one flank. Pushed aside or cowed, these nationalists are thought to have persistent support in the civil service and at the officer level in the armed forces. The war with Iraq probably has strengthened their position. But they are no immediate threat to the fundamentalists at the center , personified by Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti who has won a commanding position in both the judicial and legislative branches of government.

Challenging the fundamentalists on their other flank is the left. They are better organized than the nationalists but nevertheless have also been outmaneuvered by Ayatollah Khomeini -- at least so far.The left comprises: the traditional Iranian communist organization, the Tudeh Party, which takes its cue from Moscow; the secular Marxist Fedayeen-e Khalq, not openly linked to Moscow; and the Islamic Marxist Mujahideen-e-Khalq.

Both the Tudeh Party (which has been tactically and almost fawningly supportive of Ayatollah Khomeini from the outset) and the Fedayeen apparently go along with his conditions for release of the hostages.

But some of the Mujahideen were among those who wanted to delay parliamentary debate on the hostages until Iran's war with Iraq was over. And many analysts have suspected that there is at least an ideological link between them and the hostage-holding "students."

Interestingly, Eric Rouleau, perceptive Middle East specialist of the Paris newspaper Le Monde, writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the Mujahideen have "managed within a few months to become a mass party, particularly feared by Imam Khomeini."

But their possibilities for action have been limited so far (according to Mr. Rouleau) by their youth and inexperience -- and by the political mistakes they have made.

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