Iran edging toward hostage compromise?

One interpretation of Ayatollah Khomeini's latest moves is that he is cautiously working toward a possible compromise on the freeing of the American hostages -- with his eye, perhaps, on the Soviet invasion of next-door Afghanistan.

In this view, the Ayatollah is quietly trying to break the veto power that the student militants in the US Embassy have had over any move toward negotiating the hostages' release.

First, he denied the militants their customary access to the US media, particularly television, by expelling all American correspondents from the country.

Now he also has denied them a candidate in the Jan. 25 Iranian presidential election -- in effect diminishing their voice at home as well.

At the same time, he has tried to further undercut them by offering a constitutional amendment designed to appeal to ethnic groups whom the militants' presidential candidate had been wooing.

There is strong evidence that the pacesetters among the hostage-holders in the embassy are members of the radical Mujahideen-e Khalq organization, which preaches a revolutionary Islamic and nationalist (rather than Marxist) ideology. Their candidate in the election, and in effect their spokesman on the home front , was Massoud Rajavi. An order by the Ayatollah has had the effect of removing his name from the list of candidates.

What is causing this change?

Probably, most of all, the Soviet move into Afghanistan, which puts Soviet troops on Iran's eastern frontier, offering a much easier invasion route for them than the one over the Elburz mountains directly north of Tehran. The Soviet occupations of Afghanistan also puts Soviet troops much closer than they ever had been before to Iran's oil fields on the northern side of the Gulf.

Ayatollah Khomeini has balanced his disqualification of the Mujahideen presidential candidate with a gesture to the country's Sunni Muslim communities -- minorities in predominantly Shia Muslim Iran. The new Constitution, recently approved in a referendum, reads in part: "The official religion of Iran is Islam of the Shia sect. This principle is eternal and unchangeable."

Now the Ayatollah says he has no objection to a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution that apparently would give Shia and Sunni Muslims equal status.

Equality between Shia and Sunni Muslims had been a plank in the now-disqualified Mr. Rajavi's platform in the presidential campaign. This had won him support among the Sunni communities, which include Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Baluchis.

All four of these groups have resisted the tight central Shia Persian control of all Iran that the religious fundamentalists around Ayatollah Khomeini have sought to assert since last year's revolution -- and that seemed to be embodied in the new Constitution.

If there is a Soviet threat to Iran, either directly from the north or indirectly through Afghanistan, the role of the Kurds and the Baluchis could be crucial. The Kurds, in the northwest, have often been tempted to turn to the Soviets as offering the patronage most likely to secure for them the independence denied by Iran and neighboring lands.

The Baluchis, susceptible to parallel Soviet-inspired propaganda for exactly the same reason, live in the forbidding desert swath at the narrowest point between the Afghan border and the Western oil bottleneck at the entrance to the Gulf.

One of the front-runners in the Iranian presidential election campaign, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, apparently has rebuffed a significant US State Department move to reassure Iran on the issue of the Soviet threat.

Department spokesman Hodding Carter had said in Washington Jan. 18 that the US commitment to Iran's "territorial integrity stands," despite the imnpasse over the hostages. But Mr. Bani-Sadr's reaction to this was in fact equivocal rather than negative. He said: "If we join one [superpower] against the other, it would weaken our front against those superpowers."

Mr. Bani-Sadr had said of the Soviets in a campaign speech Jan. 17: "They want us to be divided rather than united, so that they can capture the divided parts, as they did with Afghanistan, and reach the Indian Ocean."

Fear of this possible breakup of Iran Probably has played a part in Ayatollah Khomeini's move against the Mujahideen's presidential candidate, since the latter was appealing to the potentially separatist vote in various parts of the country.

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