Few things could more starkly illustrate the deteriorating situation in Iran than Ayatollah Khomeini's appeal to citizens to turn in to the authorities family members suspected of counterrevolutioary activities or hostility to the fundamentalist Islamic regime.
The situation within Iran can be summed up as follows:
* The country -- or at least its dominant Persian heartland -- is in the grip of an attenuated civil war. The ruling clerical fundamentalists and their leftist oppositin are trying to kill each other off, not by all-out hostilities on a broad front, but by daily selective killings, sabotage, attacks on the pro-clerical Revolutionary Guards, and destruction of supplies (notably food).
* For the moment, the armed forces -- which might otherwise play a decisive role -- are locked in a stalemate with Iraq in the quiescent but continuing Gulf war, now nearly a year old.
* Also out of the fray for the moment are Iran's ethnic minorities around the central heartland -- Kurds, Azerbaijanis, Arabs, Baluchis, and Turkomans. They find themselves relieved temporarily from central government pressure or harassment by the preoccupation of the Persians at the center with killing one another. The minorities shed few tears over this.
so far the insurance policy they took out from the outset of the revolution by paying lip service to the Ayatollah Khomeini and the dominant Islamic Republican Party (IRP) is working. The Tudeh Party has had less appeal to Iranian radicals than have other leftist parties. But as the latter are killed off, the Tudeh Party's tight-knit organization would be well placed to exploit Iran's near-chaos.
* Former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, now in exile in Paris, has yet to prove the validity of his claim that he has a mass following in Iran willing and able to heed his call to overthrow the mullahs.
An argument can be made that the leftist leader who escaped to France with Mr. Bani-Sadr, Massoud Rajavi of the Mujahideen-e Khalq, is better placed than the former President to rally internal opposition from outside Iran. Mr. Rajavi has credentials in one important direction where Mr. Bani-Sadr has proven lacking: organization.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's decision to make common cause with Mr. Rajavi now that both are outside Iran is tacit admission of this. Yet even Mr. Rajavi -- whose survival and escape from Iran are in many ways more remarkable than the former President's -- has to show that he can operate effectively from the relative safety of exile when his supporters are facing firing squads at home.
The Mujahideen bore the brunt of the armed guerrilla struggle against the Shah in the 1970s. They are perhaps best described as Islamic Marxists. Their appeal has been mainly to the better-educated young radicals on university campuses. They believe Shia Islam and their own revolutionary ideas are compatible but they reject government by fundamentalist clerics.
The other leftist guerrilla underground of the 1970s -- the atheistic Marxist Fedayeen-e Khalq has fewer members than the Mujahideen and is less well-organized. Since the revolution the Fedayeen have split. Some have fallen in behind the Tudeh Party in supporting Ayatollah Khomeini; others are now joining in the pattern of violence against the fundamentalists.
The fundamentalists have bounced back to the offensive since the killing of most of their more intellectual leaders in the bombing of their IRP headquarters in Tehran shortly after the ouster of Mr. Bani-Sadr at the end of June.
But their current effectiveness seems to depend increasingly on police terror rather than on broad appeal. Iran specialist William Beeman of Brown University suspects that th IRP has proven so effective in its police terror tactics in recent weeks because it is making full use of Savama, the name given the reconstituted Savak secret police organization so long a weapon of terror and torture in the late Shah's hands. Many Savak members gladly serve in Savama to save their own skins.
The fundamentalist team at the top has still to show that it is in overall charge of the country and able to manage far more than summary arrests and executions. This uncertainty is counterbalanced by the opposition's lack of unity and overall control.
Students of revolution still look for the emergence of a strong man, most likely from the armed forces, to end the chaos.
But the stalemated war with Iraq has inhibited Iranian military leaders in positions of command inside the country.
Another factors is that the fundamentalists have tended to channel military supplies to their own Revolutionary Guards and have kept the regular forces on a very tight rein.
A third factor is that the regular forces, whatever their shortcomings, are fiercly nationalist in sentiment. This may have made them reluctant to respond positively to feelers from any of the handful of coup-hungary senior officiers in exile outside Iran, in the belief that these officers are in fact backed by one foreign power or another -- from the US to Iraq.