Why has Ayatollah Khomeini intervened on the hostage issue, after saying he would not? And why, with that intervention, has he seemingly sided with the student militants against the President of his (and the Iranian people's) choosing, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr?
The reasons appear to be twofold:
* First, the Ayatollah was virtually obliged to pronounce one way or the other when the Revolutionary Council sought his guidance, after the deadlock developed between Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh and the student militants at the American Embassy over the militants' expected surrender of the captives.
* Second, once appealed to and once aware of the damaging split that might come with any showdown involving force between the students and the government, Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced logically in the pattern of his recent political decisionmaking.
This has a two-pronged basis: (1) preservation at all costs of the unity of the revolutionary forces in Iran; and (2) furthering that unity by developing a system of checks and balances between the forces arrayed but often in conflict under the revolutionary umbrella.
The student militants holding the 50 hostages, in captivity since Nov. 4 last year, are Islamic leftists. At the present stage in the struggle for control of post-revolutionary Iran's new institutions, which are still being formed, they are in alliance with the Islamic fundamentalists.
Both groups were dealth a blow by the election to the presidency of the republic, with Ayatollah Khomeini's blessing, of the relatively moderate and outwardly Westernized Mr. Bani-Sadr. Both groups, deprived of the presidency, now are fighting for control of a new parliament, voting for which begins March 14.
The hostages have been a pawn in this struggle from the moment of their seizure more than 18 weeks ago. Both the religious fundamentalists and the Islamic leftists realized that they could use the hostages to satisfy an across-the-board need in the Persian national psyche: international and particularly American recognition of the "crimes" committed by the US-backed Shah, and the facilitation of the process intended to bring the Shah back to Iran for trial.
The forces holding the hostages have, in fact, scored more points than generally credited to them -- even if one concedes the effect on the overall situation (and on the United States in particular) of the Soviet incursion into neighboring Afghanistan.
They have an international commission in Iran looking into those "crimes" of the Shah, and they have driven home their point by forcing on the commission the physical evidence of the brutality of the Shah's secret police and security forces. By refusing at the weekend to transfer custody of the hostages to Foreign Minister Ghotbzadeh, representing the Revolutionary Council, they are squeezing yet another drop out of the hostage issue.
This came early March 10 in Ayatollah Khomeini's ruling which, sidestepping altogether the question of hostage custody, ruled out even the commission's seeing all the hostages until it had declared "its viewpoints in Tehran about the crimes of the Shah and America." But, the Ayatollah said, the commission might be allowed to question those of the hostages "who are implicated by the [ captured US Embassy] documents on the crimes of America and the Shah."
For President Bani-Sadr, who repeatedly has indicated his desire for a speedy resolution of the hostage crisis and his impatience with the hostage-holders, this must have come as a frustrating prolongation of what he wants quickly settled. Unless, of course, he was aware at the outset of what outsiders are beginning to perceive: Ayatollah Khomeini's choice of him as President does not preclude the Ayatollah's sometimes siding with the religious fundamentalists against rational Bani-Sadr policies involving compromise.
A hint of the Ayatollah's many-faceted mode of operation came shortly after Mr. Bani-Sadr's victory in the presidential election. The Ayatollah's first major appointment after the swearing in of Mr. Bani-Sadr was that of Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti to be head of the Supreme Court.
Ayatollah Beheshti had, until the presidential election, spearheaded the political campaign of the religious fundamentalists. He was widely believed to have wanted himself to be president of the republic.
More recently, Ayatollah Khomeini has named six of the twelve members of the new Council of Guardians, a religious supervisory body for all government activities. First indications are that the six represent a cross-section of religious thinking, from the progressive approach of the late Ayatollah Taleghani to the most conservative fundamentalism.
It looks increasingly likely now that -- international commission or no international commission -- Ayatollah Khomeini's earlier word on the hostages stands. In other words, the new parliament, when elected, will decide their disposition. And the hostages and the rest of the world will have to wait for that. The international commission may have to be satisfied with seeing now only those "implicated" in those allegedly incriminating embassy documents.