London — The cleric who is now taking over the perhaps unenviable role of President of Iran has long been one of Ayatollah Khomeni's chief strategists. Hojatolism Sayed Ali Khamenei first came in contact with the Ayatollah's theories of revolutionary Islam as he rose through the network of theological studies insitutions that produce the Shiite clergy.
He was placed in a key position with responsibility for implementing those theories when he was elected president of the Iranian islamic Republic Oct. 2
His predecessors in this post have also been, to a lesser or greater extent, "Khomeini's men." but Abolhassan BaniSadr developed in the secular stream of opposition to the late Shah, while his assassinated successor, Muhammad Ali Rajai, had pary links independent of Khomeini.
Neither man so perfectly represented Khomeini's view as the new President. And it is a sign of the Ayatollah's present concern over the state of the republic that he has brought Hojatolislam Khamenei out of the background shadows where he has operated so effectively and made him chief of state.
Khamenei has long been a rising star of the revolutionary Shiite movement. He made it young to the key post within the Shiite hierarchy of imam, or prayer leader, for the Tehran mosques. And after the war with Iraq broke out in September 1980, he became Ayatollah Khomeni's personal representative on the higher Defense Council established to direct strategic affairs.
Like Bani-Sadr, he made a beeline for the battlefront. But whereas Bani-Sadr was rallying the shattered fragments of the old imperial Army in the frontline provices, Khamenei was organizing the new forces of the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) in the frontline town of Ahvaz.
His backstage prominence made him a prime target, and last spring an exploding tape recorder damaged his right arm and his throat, leaving his powerful voice substantially reduced.
While Khamenei was still in Ahvaz, a few months after the war started, a visiting Arab journalist had discussions with him that represent one of his longest on-the-record discourses on political affairs.
Even at that stage, Khameini had deep differences with Banis-Sadr, who was reported eager to express interest in iraq's repeated calls for a cease-fire.
"But in our situation as a revolutionary society," the pistol-toting cleric, clad in military garb, countered in the interview, "the war leads to srengthening the revolutionary understanding of the people of the values and relations which the revolution brought to society."
"Of course," he admitted, "the war has effects on the balance inside the revolution. But such changes would not be basic or radical."
Khamenie stressed that the war effort against Iraq should be seen as part of the wider "jihad" for the sake of "building the godly structure here on earth." "There is no contradiction between this structure which we work for and the present battle," he added. The clear implication was that even a prolonged war of attrition with Iraq would not necessarily be a bad thing.
Already at that stage (the end of 1980), the revolutionary cleric was envisaging the possibility of such a long war stretching ahead. "Perhaps this war would lead to irretrievable losses for these two countries," he said. "But these would by their nature be greater for the other side than for us."
He saw the great powers as equally opposed to the ideas of the Islamic republic. "They would enter if they could so that this Islamic republic would fall to quick and decisive blos," he said. But he saw them as unable to deliver such a blow: "Amercia is . . . unable to enter a long and total war as in Vietnam. As regards the Soviets -- their capabilities do not allow them to enter such a war."
Khamenei's playing down of any "Soviet threat" stood at that time in contrast to Bani-Sadr's own fears on the same subject.But in the interview, he restated his views on the need for nonalignment with either superpower. "We don't want the price of the war to be that we forsake one of the most important values of our revolution," he said. "That is, 'no' to the West and 'no' to the East.
"True, this war could weaken our structures and destroy our arms and ammunition. But it won't be able to make us submit to one power or another."
It is not clear to what extent the new President's views have changed in the months since then. He was widely reported to have been a staunch supporter of the students who held the American hostages, so the resolution of that issue may have been a temporary setback to his prestige. But evens since then, with the discrediting of Bani-Sadr and the successive radicalizations of the regime in Tehran, have put Khamenei firmly back in the fast track.
"He is to a certain extent the Trotsky of the Islamic revolution," said one Iran expert here. "And I don't know how the Soviets would feel about dealing with someone like that."