The power struggle in Iran

By , Abbas Amirie, a visiting professor of political science at the University of California in Los Angeles, is the former executive director of Iran's Institute for International Political and Economic Studies (1973-79).

Prior to the revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his supporters believed that once the cultural and economic influences of the West were eliminated, a simple Islamic government could easily solve all the country's problems. But the past three years of the Islamic Republic's rule have proven that blaming outsiders for the country's problems is an illusion.

During this period the people of Iran have witnessed a steady deterioration of the country's economy, education, cultural activities, and agricultural production. Lack of physical, judicial, and financial security, high unemployment and inflation rates, shortages of various essentials, a state of terror and repression, and a torturous war have brought immense suffering to the people of that unfortunate land.

Yet, primarily because of Ayatollah Khomeini's enormous power and popularity among the largely uneducated Iranian masses, the regime has withstood all these problems and challenges. Since no other clergyman has the charisma and loyalty that Khomeini commands among these ''true believers,'' his death will result in the most serious challenge thus far to the Islamic Republic.

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Khomeini's heir-apparent, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, lacks the education, support, and necessary respect among the prominent clergymen. Therefore, it is unlikly that Khomeini will be able to impose him as the Vellayat-e Faghih (the Guardianship of the Theologians) upon the nation. Consequently, the Committee of Experts, which consists of 12 theologians, will probably choose a group of three to five senior clergymen to form a council to replace Khomeini.

The alleged plot to kill Khomeini by the Islamic Republic's former foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who considered himself Khomeini's most loyal spiritual son, is a part of this presuccession power struggle aimed at discrediting Ayatollah Kazem Shariat-Madari and other moderate clergymen opposed to direct involvement of religion in politics. From a theological point of view, Shariat-Madari and a few of his colleagues are more prominent than Khomeini; therefore, once he is gone, the views of these clergymen can no longer be ignored. It is for this reason that at this time the radicals have decided to eliminate them as serious contenders. The radicals in Iran have failed so far and will continue to fail in destroying the moderates' image and popularity among their followers.

The staunchly pro-Soviet Tudeh Party (the Iranian communist party) has wholeheartedly supported, if not helped plan, the plot to eliminate the moderate clergymen. From the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, Tudeh publications launched a relentless campaign against Shariat-Madari and his Muslim People's Party.

It is commonly known that the Tudeh considers the moderate brand of Islam as the major obstacle to the spread of communism in Iran. If not discredited now, it will attract massive Iranian support after Khomeini's death. One should not overlook the similarities which exist between the radical clergymen's views and policies and those of the Tudeh. Both are totalitarian, repressive, antinationalist, anti-West, and very much against private ownership. By supporting the campaign against the moderates, the Tudeh hopes to deal a heavy blow to the main bastion of religious opposition to communism and at the same time to strengthen the radical Marxist-oriented faction of the clergy. In the meantime, as the price for its support, the Tudeh seeks to put more of its agents into top positions of government.

Moreover, President Khamenei, known to be pro-Soviet, as the second most powerful leader in the country, will be in a position to consolidate his power even more if a group of clergymen instead of Montazeri is elected to lead the nation. For this reason, Khamenei has been trying to convince Khomeini that a ruling council would be a more acceptable alternative to govern Iran than a single clergyman. President Khamenei is well aware that Iranian psychology and tradition do not lend themselves to group leadership and that it would be unthinkable that three to five ayatollahs with conflicting views would work together harmoniously in leading the nation. He believes that since the president is elected by the people, he should logically absorb most powers held by Khomeini after his departure.

The future of the Islamic Republic very much depends upon the following factors:

* The outcome of the Iraq-Iran war and the extent to which the emerging military heroes of the war are willing to take advantage of the infighting and confusion and move to take power.

* The ability of the communists and other leftist forces to consolidate their position before Khomeini's death.

* The capacity of the nationalist groups to put their differences aside and unite under an umbrella organization led by a respected nationalist.

Since Khomeini's regime has directed its greatest assault upon Iranian national heritage, culture, symbols, and language, a well-known nationalist leader with credibility and the right credentials (e.g., fighting dictatorship), could use Iranian nationalism as a means of mobilizing the masses against the regime once Khomeini is gone. Supported by an effective organization inside Iran and with the cooperation of certain segments of the armed forces, the clergy and tribal forces, such a leader could dislodge the Islamic Republic soon after Khomeini's departure.

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