By April 7 the political pressure on President Carter to "get tough" with Iran over the hostages was becoming enormous. His Republican competitors Ronald Reagan and George Bush were hammering away at him almost daily for allegedly being too soft and doing too little about the hostages.
Under the circumstances prevailing in early April it is probably not suprising that Mr. Carter gave in under the pressure, broke off diplomatic relations with Iran, and began seeking the support of allies in a campaign of sanctions against the nominal government of Iran.
On April 17 Mr. Carter moved again with a statement at a press conference that if the program of sanctions failed to bring about the release of the hostages "some sort of military action" would seem to be the only alternative.
This made excellent political sense as a means of fending off the clamor from his right for tougher action against Iran, and would also have made foreign policy sense were it reasonable to think that any form of sanctions or military threats could influence anyone in authority in Iran to release the hostages. But was anyone in Iran in sufficient authority to respond to that kind of external pressure, and would such pressure influence such persons, if they existed?
The answer seems fairly clear that, as Mr. Carter gave way under domestic political pressure, events in Iran itself were moving towards a second phase of the revolution in which Mr. Carter's words in far-away Washington would have neither weight nor meaning.
On the day Mr. Carter spoke of possible US military action, the Revolutionary Council in Tehran issued an order to close out left-wing political movements in the universities. On the following day, April 18, Muslim fundamentalists who represent the Revolutionary Council moved into the universities of Tehran, Meshed, Isfahan, and Shiraz, and proceeded to close out the offices and bookstands of the leftists.
That triggered violent riots in all of the four universities. In Shiraz 300 were reported injured in six hours of rioting between the fundamentalist groups and the leftists. Reports from Meshed gave the figure of injured there as 350. Rioting continued on the 19th, the 20th, and the 21st. It spread on the 22nd to other universities. Total casualties now stand at 10 killed and 100 seriously injuired.
The central fact about this rioting is that the attack on the leftists was the result of a positive decision in the Revolutionary Council and that it was aimed at the two leftistmovements which have not until recently begun to unify their activities.
The instrument used in the attack was the paramilitary street fighters of the Islamic Republican Party whose spokesmen have identified their actions in this matter as being "the start of a cultural revolution."
The objects of the attack are the two main, organized leftist movements. One is the Marxist Fedayeen movement. The other is the Mujahedeen movement which is Islamic, but radical and opposed to the fundamentalists of the Islamic Republican party. The Muslim clergy dominates the Islamic Republicans.Both Mujahedeen and Fedayeen reject the clerical reactionism of the mullahs.
In the first phase of the revolution in Iran everyone united to bring down the Shah. But even then differences were evident between the Islamic fundamentalists and the two leftist movements. Expert observers of the Iranian scene have been expecting the alliance among the three to come apart. The decision in the council to stamp out the two leftist movements from the universities was the declaration of war by the Islamic right against the political left.
Once this issue has been joined it seems highly unlikely that there can be any sequel other than a trial of strenght in a civil war. While that trial of strength is under way Mr. Carter's noises in Washington have aboout as much meaning as someone whistling in the middle of a hurricane.
If US foreign policy were being run by professionals this would be the time to keep quiet, do nothing to call attention to the hostages, and wait and see what happens in the struggle now under way. Once one side or the other has won the civil war things will be different. Then one can either negotiate with, or apply pressure on, someone with the power to act about the hostages. Right now what Mr. Carter probably had to do under political pressure is at best meaningless. Let us hope it doesn't harm the hostages.