Iran two years later -- a power struggle vital to the West
Two years after the triumph of the Islamic revolution in Iran, the struggle for ultimate control of the country remains unresolved. Indeed, with the American hostages back home and out of the way, the struggle is in a new phase, complicated and arcane to Westerners -- as things Persian usually are.
In the meantime, events outside Iran or on its frontiers have increased the significance, in geopolitical terms, of the eventual outcome of that power struggle.
Iraq has made a bid for dominance in the Gulf by armed attack on Iran. On the other side of Iran, the Soviet union has moved its forces into neighboring Afghanistan.
And in the United States, an apparently hard-line President has assumed office, committed both to a tougher line toward the Soviet Union and to a bigger and more forward American military presence in the general area of the oil- rich Gulf.
The name and person of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini dominate the scene -- as they have since that slightly misty, chill February morning two years ago when this writer watched him, robed, turbaned, slippered, bearded, and formidably patriarchal, set foot again on Iranian soil after 15 years of exile.
For a brief interlude of little more than a week thereafter, he seemed in unchallenged control of the revolution -- a massive oak with no apparent rival sapling in his shade.
But when fighting broke out in Tehran on Feb. 9, 1979, and the armed revolutionary leftist Mujahideen and Fedayeen ignored the Ayatollah's call for an immediate cease-fire, it was clear that other trees were not to be deterred from sprouting.
The omens for future struggle became still clearer when, on Feb. 11, the leftists who had ignored the cease-fire call gained control of all Tehran and then delivered it to the Ayatollah. Pointedly (and perhaps unforgivably), he never acknowledged his debt to them.
Since then, under the umbrella of the Ayatollah's occasionally aloof presence as religious guardian of the revolution, the power struggle has been ruthlessly waged for two tumultuous years. Now as the revolution heads into its third year , the vacuum left by the departure and subsequent demise of the Shah has still to be definitively filled.
The prospect is still more turmoil until government ends up unchallenged in the hands of one of the following:
* The clerical Shia Muslim fundamentalists, who have the advantage at the moment. Their political arm is the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) led by Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti.
* The secular "liberal" revolutionaries, led by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.
* The extreme left, comprised of three main groups not always in step. These are: (1) the Fedayeen -- youthful, armed, atheistic, and self-professed Marxist communists, but not necessarily completely subservient to Moscow; (2) the Mujahideen -- also youthful and armed, but Islamic, not atheistic, and Marxist-influenced rather than self-professed Marxists or communists; and (3) the old-fashioned orthodox Moscow-oriented communists of Iran, the Tudeh Party.
* An as-yet-unidentified Iranian Cromwell or Bonaparte, emerging perhaps from the armed forces to take charge and restore order.
If that Iranian Cromwell is biding his time, the liberal secularists and the extreme left are not. From opposite flanks, both are gunning for incumbent Prime Minister Muhammad Ali Rajai (who negotiated the release of the US hostages), for the IRP (his patron), and for clerical fundamentalism in general.
Both liberals and leftists allege that Mr. Rajai sold out to the US in the hostage deal.
The fundamentalists are sensitive to their vulnerability -- despite the fact that they have nominal control of the Cabinet, the Majlis (parliament), and the judiciary. However, they have lost to the secularist liberals the support of the ever-important non-Westernized merchant class in the bazaars. And the fundamentalists are getting most of the blame for the worsening economic situation.
The most valuable card left to the fundamentalists is the continued support of the mainly illiterate street mob -- the sans-culottes, to use the language of the French Revolution. It was the sans-culottes of Tehran whom the fundamentalists used last week to break up a protest demonstration organized by the Fedayeen.
Those Fedayeen-organized anti-government protesters -- 40 of whom were injured by the sans-culottes who broke up their demonstration -- were chanting: "We want jobs, bread, freedom, and independence."
Mr. Bani-Sadr, from the other end of the spectrum, has openly accused his fundamentalist foes of "oppression and despotism," of wanting "to bring back the bad days of the past through lies, trickery, calumny, libel, prison, and torture."
A somewhat distraught Ayatollah Khomeini, conscious of his advanced years, appears to have two main concerns: to remain above, yet put an end to, the furious infighting among those factions that he once thought were united in a single, agreed revolutionary goal; and to avoid being made to look silly by having his injunctions flouted or disregarded.
This explains the appearance he has sometimes given to outsiders of leading from behind -- as in the early days of the US hostages' captivity.
On the eve of the celebrations planned for the Feb. 11 anniversary, the Ayatollah issued a special plea. "This nation should be united as it was at the start of the revolution," he said. "The nation must not listen to those who are arguing against each other."
The plea is unlikely to make much difference. But most observers are agreed that one thing would immediately make a difference -- and in the direction of deeper and fiercer internal strife. That would be the departure of the Ayatollah from the scene.
The consequent upheaval might well put both superpowers -- and their current restraint -- to the test.