Iran confronting leftist showdown

Iran's Islamic revolution seems to have taken another perilous step toward an internal showdown inevitable from the start. Some will call it civil war, others the final chapter of a revolution that has not yet ended.

It may feature a witch hunt of leftist by Muslim rightists -- and it already has produced some bangs, in the form of outright clashes between contending factions.

Indeed, the spate of Tehran bombings April 28 -- ending a brief lull after violent clashes on university campuses a week earlier -- has signaled that even a convenient crisis with the United States cannot erase the conflict between truculent Islamic fundamentalists and leftists over the direction of a revolution they jointly created.

The unrest of recent weeks differs fundamentally from the battle with Kurdish rebels, which exploded anew in April, and from battles with other ethnic minorities since the ouster of the Shah 15 months ago. The battlefront now is Tehran.

As one European ambassador put it during the university clashes, "Persian is now fighting Persian. For the first time, there is the danger of genuine civil war."

Opinions differ widely on the immediacy of that danger. Iran, since early 1979, has tiptoed to the brink of a whole range of disasters -- chaos in the streets, a split between hard-line and moderate Muslim mullahs, economic collapse, war with Iraq -- without falling off.

Yet few political analysts here, Iranian or foreign, doubt that the danger exists that it has grown, and that even a political tightrope act by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr cannot finesse it away.

Thus, as thousands of militant Muslims marched in anti-American fervor to the captive US embassy April 25 to protest the unsuccessful US hostage rescue attempt, some shouted death not only to President Carter, but to the Iranian Left as well.

On the edge of the crowd stood two young women, one properly covered in Islamic fashion, and her friend in Western garb. Demonstrators heckled and harassed the second woman into flight.

Indeed, it is the Islamic Right, dominating the revolution under the umbrella of Ayatollah Khomeini and getting stronger by the day, that seems to have taken the offensive.

Inside government, this means the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) of Revolutionary Council secretary Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti. On the streets and campuses, it means militant youths of the ilk holding the American hostages, and what appeared to be a group of thugs sardonically dubbed by their opponents as the "Party of God" or, in Persian, Hezbolahi.

The prime leftist target so far has been the Marxist Fedayeen-e Khalq guerilla organization -- not because it is the most formidable of the fundamentalists' opponents, but because it is the most vulnerable.

For the Fedayeen are secular, and in 1980 Iran that is something akin to being black in the lynching days of the American South. The Fedayeen have had little choice but to fight back, first on the campuses, then with shouts of "death to Khomeini" over the university "martyrs," and now -- if one accepts the allegations of the Muslim extremists -- with the first terrorist bombings Tehran has seen since the revolution.

But the rival apparently most feared by the Muslim hard-liners is not the Fedayeen but the Mujahideen-e Khalq. The Mujahideen are fighters of a political "jihad," or holy war, which combines socialism with a deeply felt Islam. Their existence is a guarantee, in the eyes of political analysts here, that the revolution's central conflict will not go away.

The Mujahideen were the toughest of the anti-regime terrorist factions under the Shah, and now they have, in a sense, gone straight since the revolution.Avoiding head-on clashes with the Islamic Right, a soft-spoken standard-bearer named Masud Rajavi has built the Mujahideen into a tightly organized political party.

If it is as yet no match for Ayatollah Beheshti and his followers, the Mujahjideen has been steadily gaining strength, particularly among students and middle-class intellectuals.

Mr. Rajavi also tried to run for president in January, but his fundamentalist rivals managed to get him disqualified on grounds he had publicly opposed an Islamic Republican constitution mapping out a tightly Islamic authority center around Ayatollah Khomeini.

Like just about everything else in Iran's rhetoric-charged revolution, the ideological lines between Right and Left are drawn in generalities. Ayatollahs Khomeini and Beheshti want a rigidly Islamic society. Mr. Rajavi speaks of pluralism and democracy, and neither party really explains precisely what it means.

But ideology, in any case, may be of less immediate importance than the simple thirst for control of a runaway revolution both sides spent years and many young lives to ignite.

The militant mullahs (Muslim teachers), securely on top for the time being but presumably aware that their revolution has provided milk and honey for precious few Iranians, seem concerned they could loose their primacy to a political Left they accuse alternately of kowtowing to Washington or to Moscow.

The Left, or Mr. Rajavi's Left, is biding its time. Leftists who spent years in the Shah's prisons have suspected almost since the day he left that they had traded one authoritative and hostile regime for another. Indeed, they were forced briefly underground after being branded as "counterrevolutionary" by Ayatollah Khomeini in the summer of 1979.

Their military apparatus, usually informed Iranian and diplomatic sources maintain, is intact, if so far inactive.

Mr. Rajavi knows he cannot tackle the Islamic fundmentalists head-on, whether on the streets or at the polls, as long as this nation is caught up in the charisma of Ayatollah Khomeini. So some of his aides and followers say.

Mr. Rajavi tells it differently. "We want to live in a just, democratic society," he explained in a rare interview. "Even when we disagree with the government, we obey. . . . The Imam Khomeini led the popular struggle against the Shah. Under his leadership a new system was established. We support him.

"We are progressive, no anarchists."

But one of two things could erode leftist restraint, in the view of most analysts here.

The first is an all-out offensive by the Islmic Right; indeed, even Mr. Rajavi, although stressing "We don't want to be the ones to start anything," added:

"There is a question for how long anyone can remain reasonable. The Hezbolahi want to start a crusade [against the Left]. We don't want this, but there is a question of how far we can go along with them. . . . It is question for the Hezbolahi."

The second potential catalyst would be the passing of Ayatollah Khomeini, the strongest unifying factor in a fractious revolution.

"Without the Ayatollah," says one Western diplomat, "I shudder to think of the magnitude the battle between the mullahs and the Left might acquire."

Even with the Ayatollah, that battle sometimes seems very close to the surface.

The newspaper of Ayatohlah Beheshti's IRP April 29 headlined the charge that a "leftist American group" was behind the three bomb explosions that killed at least three civilians in Tehran April 28. That group, the newspaper explained later, was in fact the Fedayeen-e Khalq.

The newspaper also published what it said was a statement from judicial authorities in southern Iran identifying a number of "counterrevolutionary" elements from local universities, among them a Fedayeen parliamentary candidate accused of collaboration with the Shah's former secret police.

The central "revolutionary committee" of Tehran, dominated by the Islamic fundamentalists, then issued a statement saying, among other things, all Iranians should "regard themselves as Revolutionary Guards and policemen" against "American imperialism and its internal lackeys."

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