Power Struggle in Iran Clouds View for US Policymakers

As President Khatami tries to leverage his mandate for reform, hard-line clerics offer deep-rooted resistance.

Finding out what Iranian decisionmakers are thinking - or even who they are, sometimes - is more art than science.

And during these days of conflict between reform and hard-line clerics in the Islamic Republic - which is still singled out by the US State Department as the "most active" state sponsor of terrorism - seeing through the impenetrable shroud is reminiscent of cold-war days of Kremlinology.

Iran is not a rival superpower sitting atop a nuclear arsenal. But as Iran asserts its strategic importance in a volatile region, and looms as as a natural conduit for Caspian oil riches, understanding its mysterious ways of rule becomes crucial.

No one can say even whether moderate President Mohamad Khatami is winning his drive to end Iran's isolation and restore what he calls a "civil society" to Iran. Or whether conservatives are successfully thwarting him at every turn.

"Things were easier" during the cold war, says a senior Western diplomat, who spent years studying the inner workings of the Soviet Union by reading deeply into the subtlest messages from Moscow.

"You could read between the lines, and see who was in favor or not by how they lined up in official pictures," he says. "But this Islamic system? It's tough. This is a mysterious country."

Part of the problem in "reading" Iran is that there are competing centers of power, of which even the government is often considered just another faction.

Enter Mr. Khatami's brand of glasnost, based on a 70 percent election victory last year. His plans include a gradual dtente with the US and loosened restrictions on women.

But the result has been political guerrilla warfare in which the biggest battles are often fought behind closed doors. One public test will come Oct. 23, when Iranians elect members of the 86-member Assembly of Experts - the one clerical body that in turn elects, and can oust, Iran's "supreme" spiritual leader.

The results are especially important, considering rumors of ill health of Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khamenei, who approves every foreign-policy decision. But already the candidates' list has been denuded of reform-thinking clerics, sparking an outcry from Khatami allies and deepening voter apathy.

"Many see Khatami as the only credible symbol of change, and say change is irreversible," says the senior diplomat. "But the conservatives are still strong, and like in the Soviet Union, they do not want change.

"In the Soviet Union the system was hollow, and so it collapsed," he says. "But here the system is ... religious and deep, the commitment is ... stronger."

Examples of brazen acts by hard-liners are many. In August, 500 people were reportedly arrested in a one-night sweep for violators of social codes; judges in vans handed down immediate sentences.

And last month Khatami's information minister and a vice president were attacked at a public rally. The attack sparked outrage in many quarters, and prompted demands from both Khatami and Khamenei to respect the rule of law.

For the first time several Hizbollahi - self-appointed enforcers, who have violently broken up protests - were arrested.

Also on the conservative lineup are the watchful Revolutionary Guards.

"If such cultural sedition reaches an intolerable level, the Guards will act under duty against anti-revolutionary groups in whatever guise," Cmdr. Rahim Safavi told Iran's Keyhan newspaper, in a veiled reference to liberal clerics.

THE attack against the officials, however, may hint at deeper unease. "It shows from the conservative side that there is no comprehensive and clear strategy," says another Western diplomat.

"They feel that in the minds of the people, they are losing control," echoes a Western analyst. "If I were a conservative, I would to act now or [expect to] lose."

Horse-trading is required, however, if Khatami is to realize his agenda.

The most recent quid pro quo, analysts say, was the case of Salman Rushdie, British author of the controversial book "The Satanic Verses," who for nine years has lived under a death sentence for blasphemy imposed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader.

To remove this obstacle to better ties, Khatami made clear last month that Iran would never carry out the sentence. That decision drew fire from hard-liners in Tehran. But in what appeared to be a preemptive attack to mollify conservatives, weeks before the Rushdie decision, Iran's most vocal pro-Khatami newspaper had been shut down and its editors jailed.

A similar trade is believed to have been made over Khatami's CNN interview in January, in which he mentioned the "great American people" and called for dialogue.

The political price paid for Khatami's being allowed to make overtures may be that Iran is taking an increasingly harsh line against Israel, America's closest Mideast ally. To some, the slow thaw with the US indicates a deliberate, successful chipping away by reformers. "There is a cultural transformation in the last 10 years that can't be stopped," says the senior diplomat. "The conservatives aren't articulating anything meaningful."

Khatami's popular support presents its own problem. The president has made clear that he believes in the pillars of the revolution, including the infallibility of the supreme leader. So he treads a fine line.

"Khatami ... wants to reform the system, but not to change it," says one Western observer. It is because he "embodies" the mood for change that conservatives "are so aggressive with him. But can he do it without destroying the system? This is the Gorbachev dilemma."

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