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Can Bani-Sadr fight back?

By Geoffrey GodsellStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 1981



The peaking of the campaign against Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and the violence that erupted in Tehran this weekend raise several important questions: * Why did Bani-Sadr's supporters leave it so late to take to the streets to try to thwart the Shia Muslim fundamentalists' move to oust him from the presidency?

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* Do the antifundamentalist forces have the strength and the numbers successfully to challenge the fundamentalists' mass organizations?

* Indeed, can Bani-Sadr or any other comparatively moderate potential "strong man" make a comeback against the forces of fundamentalism?

The fundamentalists' campaign against Bani-Sadr reached new heights June 21 with the Iranian revolutionary prosecutor-general ordering the President's arrest. This came only hours after the fundamentalist-dominated Majis (parliament) had voter overwhelmingly (177 to 1, with a handful of abstentions or absences) to declare the President politically incompetent. The proceedings were intended to lead to his impeachment or dismissal, but that had not yet occurred at time of writing.

Earlier the fundamentalist campaign had gathered momentum with street mobs calling for Bani-Sadr's death. The fundamentalists, like a Pied Piper, can call out these largely illiterate mobs at will. (The fundamentalists' other mass organization is the armed "revolutionary guards" or Pasdarans, most of whom are now fighting alongside the regular military on the Iraq front.)

The beleaguered President has not been seen for more than a week. When the Majlis voted against him, his whereabouts were still unknown. His wife and some members of his family were reported arrested in Tehran as they were allegedly distributing leaflets June 20. Before disappearing, Mr. Bani-Sadr had repeatedly refused suggestions that he compromise or make a deal with the fundamentalists. He had also resisted calls for his resignation.

One of the reasons he was fighting to retain the presidency, he told the Paris newspaper Le Monde earlier this month, was that he saw his remaining in office as a dike against opposition violence. If he resigned, he explained, the hitherto largely silent opposition to the fundamentalists would erupt into violence and a second revolution would be unleased.

The fundamentalists are already calling the violence of June 20 -- in which at least 19 were reported killed and more than 200 injured -- a counterrevolution.

The best-organized and biggest opposition group is the Islamic, but Marxist-influenced, Mujahideen-e Khalq. They were reportedly in the vanguard of the pro-Bani-Sadr forces doing battle on the streets of Tehran over the weekend.

A recent issue of The Economist of London estimated the strength of the Mujahideen-e Khalq at about 100,000. They are armed and trained along classic urban guerrilla lines. They were strong on university campuses -- which is one of the reasons the fundamentalist authorities have kept the universities closed.

Another significant radical armed guerrilla group is the Fedayeen-e Khalq, said by The Economist to be about 80,000 strong. Atheist Marxists, they are split between opposition to the fundamentalists and support for the orthodox pro-Moscow Iranian Communists in the Tudeh Party.

Paradoxically, the Tudeh Party supports the fundamentalists, at least overtly. For this it gets no thanks from the usually anti-Russian and antiatheist fundamentalists. But the Tudeh Party sticks to its odd line apparently to facilitate its eventual infiltration of the bureaucracy, should the fundamentalists finally establish their completely theocratic state and society.

Scanning the spectrum of potential opposition to the fundamentalists, one cannot overlook the armed forces. As President of the republic, Mr. Bani-Sadr was nominal commander in chief of the armed forces -- until removed from that position by Ayatollah Khomieni June 10.

After Iraq launched its war on Iran last September, Mr. Bani-Sadr deliberately cultivated the military and spent much of his time at the front. Inevitably the question arises: How great is the potential following or support for him among the military?