Stirrings in Iran

Few people would pretend to be informed about, much less understand, the Byzantine-like political maneuverings in Iran. But it is not without interest to the West that the Khomeini regime has struck out at still another center of potential opposition - the Tudeh communist party. The party has been banned and half of the Soviet embassy staff in Tehran forced to leave the country.

This is worth mentioning for two reasons. It helps keep in perspective the efforts of the Kremlin to expand Soviet influence in the Middle East. Attention is now focused on the buildup of Soviet weapons in Syria. That is indeed cause for concern. But it does not automatically mean that Moscow is able to control Syrian policy. The judgment of many diplomats seems to be that, while the Syrians are only too happy to receive arms, they are not about to be dictated to politically.

In Iran the Russians tried to make a show of support for the Islamic revolution (even though they fear its impact in Central Asia). They were pleased at the blow dealt to US interests in Iran with the fall of the Shah and doubtless saw a new opportunity to enhance their own influence. It was hoped that the Tudeh party, banned under the monarchy, could gain enough popular support to play a dominant role once Ayatollah Khomeini was no longer on the scene. The Khomeini forces exploited the party's support but now apparently see it as a danger to themselves. They have thus in effect blocked the Soviet Union.

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Secondly, political shifts in Iran could have consequences throughout the Middle East. It is far from clear what the banning of the Tudeh party will mean internally, but it has shaken up the chess pieces. Some Iranians - notably emigres abroad - believe that the move signals the reemergence of moderates in Iran and the readiness of Khomeini to open the door to the West once again. In this connection it is not insignificant that US oil companies have quietly renewed talks with the Iranian government and reached a tentative agreement to help Iran rebuild its oil facilities. Although the US administration has said little, it cannot but be pleased at the communist loss in Iran.

On the other hand, it might be short-sighted to infer a change in the attitude of the ruling Iranian elite, which scorns both superpowers. The anti-Soviet move may be simply one more calculated step by the Shia elite to assure its political survival after Khomeini - and the preservation of the Islamic revolution. Those now in power, put there by the Ayatollah, are looking to the future, trying to eliminate all potential contenders.

A central concern for the West is that Islamic fundamentalism remains a powerful force in Iran and there seems to be no letup in Khomeini's efforts to spread its influence abroad. The Russians are no less worried about this than are Islamic countries in the region. Moscow is now supplying arms to Iraq, fearing that if Iran wins the war with Iraq - and Moscow has no strong position in Tehran - this could lead to a Shia regime in Baghdad and probably Shia dominance in the area. There are some 1,000 Iranians in the Bekaa Valley under Syrian control preaching the idea of an Islamic state in Lebanon (an idea which must appeal to many Muslims who feel they are cut out of a share of power).

These are the kinds of developments which bear close watching in Washington. It would be wise not to isolate the Israeli-Arab dispute from the larger Middle East picture - from the potential danger which Islamic fundamentalism poses to Arab states if that dispute is not resolved. If Iran is opening the door to the US, by all means the overture ought to be explored. But, needless to say, with wariness and no illusions.

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