Abolhassan Bani-Sadr's election as Iranian president suggests that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini may be ready to start implementing his pledge to move Iran's clergy into the background.
The clergy will advise and not rule, the man who guided the Iranian revolution used to say from exile. Yet no sooner had the Shah been chased out of Iran early last year than the Ayatollah began to fashion a one- man theocratic regime.
That, close friends told the Monitor late last year, was never Ayatollah Khomeini's intention. he did, they argued, genuinely want to lower the clergy's political profile. The problem was that there was no credible "secular" alternative.
Mr. Bani-Sadr's comfortable electoral margin could change that. The French-educated Finance Minister, although himself the son of a clergyman, studied economics in a secular university. He is profoundly Muslim. But he is also profoundly ambitious, tough, pragmatic.
He envisages a powerful presidency, at least within the parameters of revolutionary Iran. This contrasts with the impulses of one- time front-runner Jelaloddin Farsi, the soft- spoken candidate of the clergy, who was effectively disqualified in mid-campaign when it became clear his parents were not both Iranian.
And Ayatollah Khomeini, in effect, helped Mr. Bani-Sadr get elected. Mr Bani-Sadr, before and since the revolution, has been a close, even devoted aide to and student of the Ayatollah.
But he has implicitly criticized some of the more heavy-handed Muslim mullahs (teachers) around the Iranian leader -- particularly in criticizing the state-run media that they have come to influence. He also has clear ambitions of his own. Shortly before the election, Mr. Bani-Sadr said the new president must be able to "secure the people's trust in providing solutions to any form of crisis."
On Jan. 25, claiming victory on the basis of a commanding lead in early voting returns, Mr. Bani-Sadr told Britain's Reuter news agency that one top priority would be to whip up support for his own associates in February's scheduled parliamentary elections.
First, the Ayatollah was true to a vow to stay out of the campaign. Even after Mr. Farsi dropped out and it became clear that the clergy could not come up with a convincing alternative candidate, the Ayatollah did not move to slow Mr. Bani-Sadr's pace.
Nor did Iran's Islamic leader back rumblings from the clergy for postponement of the election in order to give the main religious party more time to come up with an alternative to Mr. FArsi.
This surprised more than a few veteran analysts of the Iranian revolution. The most convincing explanation of the Ayatollah's studied neutrality would seem that his friends may have been right -- that he really does want to move into the role of Islamic mentor, diluting at least some of the enormous power he has amassed in the revolution.
But some of his comments have made it clear that he does not intend to sit quietly on the sidelines, either.
Western and Arab analysts of revolutionary Iran are quick to caution that no early trimming of the clergy's power seems likely.
Ayatollah Khomeini still provides indispensable cement in a fragmented, often violent Iran. Mr. Bani-Sadr is not the only noncleric who would like to take a major role in running the country. There are Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh and former naval commander Ahmad Madani, to name but two.
Each of these tried, and failed, to b ecome president. Each is now mentioned as a possibility for prime minister, a post Mr. Bani- Sadr is to fill by appointment.
Finally, only nonclergy could run for president, according to the Ayatollah's unofficial directives. Prominent Muslims will, instead, be represented on a council intended as a kind of communal group to stand in for Ayatollah Khomeini, should the aging religious chief pass away.
Still, Mr. Bani-Sadr has made no secret of his intention to build an effective power structure around himself.
In the long run, that should mean an alternative, if not competitive, power center besides the religious city of Qom.