Why Iran's new President must steer careful course

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Iran's new President, wants to lose no time in restoring the institutions of the state swept away in a weekend of revolutionary violence just a year ago.

That is the meaning of his swearing-in Feb. 4 in the hospital room of the country's religious guardian, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Before going to the hospital for this ceremony, Mr. Bani-Sadr had given what is being called his inaugural address at the Behesht Zahra Cemetery, where many of those who fell in the struggle against the Shah are buried.

In giving Mr. Bani-Sadr 75 percent of the total poll in the presidential election Jan. 25, Iranians showed overwhelmingly that after a year of revolutionary uncertainties they wanted a layman as their chief executive -- albeit one respectful of Shia Islam -- and that they were impatient to install new institutions to take the place of those operating under the ousted Shah.

But there are three major obstacles in the path of Mr. Bani-Sadr's desire to get on speedily and unhindered with the job expected of him. They are:

* The rearguard action of the fundamentalist religious forces smarting under the defeat inflicted on them by Mr. Bani-Sadr and by the runner-up, former Adm. Ahmad Madani, in the presidential election. The fundamentalists' candidate, Hassan Habibi, came in a poor third, with only 4.8 percent of the vote.

* The continued dissidence of Iran's non-Persian and usually non-Shia ethnic minorities. Most challenging of all is the armed rebellion of the Kurds in the northwest.

* The still unsolved problem of the 50 American hostages, now into the fourth month of their captivity in the US Embassy in Tehran.

Mr. Bani-Sadr already is engaged in something of a cat-and- mouse game with the hostage-holders, who may be all too willing to enter into a compact with the religious fundamentalists to trip him up. He has made it clear several times that he is against giving the hostage-holders veto power over decisions of state or allowing them to operate as a state-within-the-state.

But he knows that the hostages are an emotional issue symbolic of the new Iran's determination to be "pure" and resistant to superpower pressure. Hence his reluctance to acquiesce in any move to free the hostages without obliging the United States to pay a price.

In an interview with the Paris newspaper Le Monde just after his election victory, Mr. Bani-Sadr indicated that the circumstances made it virtually impossible to free the hostages without the US admitting the "wrongs" it had done Iran.

Reports persist of continued exchanges through the agency of United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim about the possibility of dovetailing a freeing of the hostages with the establishment of an international tribunal to hear charges against the Shah.

The game plans being aired are not new in themselves. Some aspects of them have been on the table since last November, the month the hostages were seized.

The refinement most recently picked up by the press provides for an intermediate stage between freeing the hostages and the starting of work by the proposed tribunal. The hostages would not be immediately released into US custody for repatriation but would be handed over to a third party in Tehran -- say the International Red Cross or the Swiss Embassy.

But the snag in this plan so far has been getting US acquiescence for the hostages to remain in third-party custody until the proposed tribunal has finished its work -- rather than for a short token period.

A persistent formula has a five-member tribunal, with two private-citizen members and three chosen by governments to be nominated by Mr. Waldheim. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Tehran said Feb. 4 that Mr. Waldheim would announce composition of the tribunal "at the end of this week or at the beginning of next week."

The spokesman added that the tribunal would discuss the Shah's alleged crimes and the return to Iran of his fortune -- but not his personal extradition from Panama.

Mr. Bani-Sadr's immediate need is to assert his presidential authority as soon as possible. But the pitfalls ahead for him, despite his massive electoral majority, were highlighted on the eve of his inaugural address at the cemetery.

The Revolutionary Council, weighted with religious fundamentalists, announced that it would continue in office until after parliamentary elections in a month's time. It is not clear whether this is a move to hamper Mr. Bani-Sadr in the appointment of a Cabinet of his choosing before a new parliament is elected -- or perhaps to exert maximum influence in the parliamentary elections.

Mr. Bani-Sadr does not have a formal party organization as such, whereas the fundamentalists do: the Islamic Republican Party. But the latter's organizational advantage was not able to block Mr. Bani-Sadr's resounding victory in the race for the presidency.

The party's star patron is Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, once thought to have ambitions for high political office himself. He may well do his best to limit the success of Mr. Bani-Sadr's supporters in the parliamentary balloting.

Thwarted along with Ayatollah Beheshti in the presidential election was Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, still acting foreign minister and controller of radio and television for much of the past year.

One thing is certain: The days ahead will see infighting of the kind that Persians are expert at.

Mr. Bani-Sadr lacks neither courage nor maneuvering skill. He told Le Monde that: the Islamic Republican Party "died" the day it was steamrollered in the presidential election; the clergy would have no place within or without the new institutions of the state, but would be above it; and he intended to purge radio and television to put an end to the "scandalous censorship" hitherto exercised there -- to a considerable extent, be it noted, at his expense.

He boasts that he is the people's choice, not the clergy's, citing the 75 percent share of the poll that he won. Yet there is evidence that shared exile in France has given him Ayatollah Khomeini's almost paternal confidence -- and in today's Iran, that is (as they say) the bottom line.

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