Who's at the helm in Iran amid chaos?

Universities seethe. Kurdish rebels summarily disarm government troops. It makes one wonder who's running Iran today. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni still can theoretically tell most people what to do, but he doesn't.

And in a whirlpool of "permanent revolution," a popular and powerless President named Abolhassan Bani-Sadr "rules" largely by desperate improvisation -- when he rules at all.

The more optimistic of European diplomats, groping for excuses not to join an American pressure campaign to free 50 US Embassy hostages, argue that Iran is merely passing through a period of "transition."

If so, all indications are that it will be a very long transition -- or a short one ending in chaos, war, Soviet domination, or new dictatorship.

President Bani-Sadr, with suitably revolutionary rhetoric, is waging an urgent and apparently losing battle to clamp law and order on Iran's runaway revolution.

The battle is urgent because only Ayatollah Khomeini can ensure that he wins it. Mr. Bani-Sadr is losing because radical rivals see behind his "revolutionary" smokescreen and fear their freedom is in danger. And because Ayatollah Khomeini, after a brief spurt of support for the President in February , has withdrawn, in the tradition of Muslim teachers, to a seat beyond the fray.

Further complicating Mr. Bani-Sadr's problem is the fact that when pressured to intervene in a specific policy dispute, Ayatollah Khomeini seems to rule against whoever does the asking.

Islamic hard-liners, thought to have Ayatollah Khomeini's unqualified backing , tried to get him to delay the January presidential elections when their candidate was disqualified because of Afghan parentage. His answer: "No."

Mr. Bani-Sadr, unable to persuade these varied hard-liners on his Revolutionary Council to support him, asked the Ayatollah earlier this month for custody of the American Embassy hostages. The answer: again: "No."

Iranian political analysts argue that the Ayatollah is ready to support any unanimous Revolutionary Council decision on just about anything. The Ayatollah, who associates say really does want to leave day-to-day government to others, could then do just that.

But if the council -- a battleground of Islamic hard-liners and relative moderates such as Mr. Bani-Sadr -- were united, then Iran already would have a strong measure of central authority. Revolutionary Iran would be quite a different place.

Mr. Bani-Sadr, presumably having decided he cannot win a head-on battle with his opponents now, is attempting a gradual consolidation of his authority, while hoping he will be in a stronger position after Iran's parliament is elected.

Using crises with Washington and neighboring Iraq as a rallying point for "national unity," the French-educated Mr. Bani-Sadr is striving to reconstruct a shattered economy and a demoralized military. Labor unrest is branded "counterrevolutionary."

So, in effect, there is opposition to a President who won some 75 percent of the votes in January, whether it comes from Kurdish rebels in Iran's western hills or from university campuses.

Meanwhile, the man who masterminded Mr. Bani-Sadr's presidential campaign has told the Monitor that efforts are afoot to bring out friendly voters in the second and final round of parliamentary voting, tentatively scheduled for May 9.

Ayatollah Khomeini already has decreed that parliament will decide the fate of the American hostages held by militant Muslim youths in the embassy here for nearly six months. A Cabinet, with parliamentary support, theoretically will supplant the ruling Revolutionary Council.

But the first round of voting, providing about 100 of the legislature's 270 members, favored the Muslim hard-liners of the Islamic Republican Party. The IRP was far better organized than Mr. Bani-Sadr's forces, apparently overconfident and exhausted from their presidential victory.

And even presidential campaign manager Ahmad Salamatian, touted as possible foreign minister in the Cabinet, acknowledges that in a country as vast and as unused to democracy as Iran, electing a single presidential candidate is much easier than peddling largely unknown parliamentary hopefuls.

Mr. Salamatian probably is right in arguing that no organized force, not even the IRP, will get a clear parliamentary majority. He is just as probably wrong in arguing that most legislators will fundamentally support Mr. Bani-Sadr for the sake of a strong central government.

As one Iranian journalist put it privately: "Look how hard it is to get 13 Revolutionary Council members to agree. The parliament will be the same problem , magnified 20 times."

If so, parliament at least will reflect the wishes of the country.

With right-wing and leftist extremists pulling in opposite directions -- and both tugging away from Mr. Bani-Sadr -- the President often finds himself following as much as leading.

Earlier this month, he moved to ban demonstrations on university campuses, potentially undercutting both a leftist student majority and the vocal Muslim militants whose ranks produced the Nov. 4 capture of the US Embassy.

The Muslim fundamentalists promptly occupied some campuses, demanding they be "Islamicized."

The President improvised. In a series of extraordinary Revolutionary Council sessions, he managed to defer calls for immediate revamping of the university curricula and staffs by shutting the campuses and ordering all rival political headquarters there dismantled.

With fists, nooses, and wooden staves, Muslim militants began battling leftist students on campuses nationwide. Hundreds were injured, at least a few others reportedly were killed.

At this writing, with the approach of a late-April 21 deadline for closure of student political offices, escalating bursts of gunfire crackled from Tehran University as revolutionary guards fired into the air to defuse student brawls.

Ambulances wailed to the scene.

Some political offices had or would close, students said. President Bani-Sadr might conceivably win total compliance without making good on a pledge to call the "people" onto campuses to enforce the ruling.

But as one diplomat commented, "The whole university crisis, and its prompting in part by the Muslim militants' sit-ins, emphasizes the limit of central authority."

If no other evidence is needed, the baggy-trouser Kurds in Iran's western hills provide it.

In recent days, government troops apparently have unleashed their latest offensive against the rebels. While both sides are taking casualties, it is clear that Mr. Bani-Sadr's forces are nowhere near victory yet.

"The fighting is part of an endemic pattern of disintegrated authority. It is the hopeless attempt of a weak central government to prove its power on one front -- on any front at all," commented one Asian diplomat.

Almost as he spoke, Iranian state radio reported the disarmament of a 65-man army unit by Kurdish rebels, who argued the weapons "belong to the people."

Against this background of internal unrest, Iran also has managed to win the enmity of more than a few foreign powers, the US and Iraq in particular. It has won undiluted friendship from almost none.

Iranian leaders, substituting rhetoric for reason, argue that their country is more than a match for any foreign state. If push comes to military shove, that simply is not true.

Some Iranian journalists and other political analysts fear that, as their government gropes for a way out of domestic chaos, push will indeed come to shove abroad.

Yet the most haunting fear is that Iran may face a return to the very kind of dictatorship that cost so many lives to throw off. The armed forces seem in sufficient disarray to obviate any military challenge to the revolutionary regime.

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