The Khomeini family -- Ayatollah, son, and son-in-law -- are again boosting Iran's "moderate" President, but some diplomats suspect it is time for the West to shift its negotiating bets to the rival Islamic "hard-liners."
The emerging consensus among analysts here is that the stabilization of Iran's chaotic revolution and the eventual release of 53 American hostages hinges not so much on who wins this peaking power struggle as on the necessity that someone win it outright.
"The major precondition for putting this country back together and for getting the hostages out," commented a senior Western diplomat, "is that one party or another must be in a strong enough position to make decisions that will stick."
There are three potential candidates for that role: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's supreme and supremely elusive leader; President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, "moderate," Western educated, popular, and so far powerless; and the rival, "hard-line" Islamic Republican Party (IRP) of Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti.
Western diplomats would like to think that support from the Khomeini family in recent days for the Iranian President means that the Ayatollah has opened an all-out campaign to consolidate Mr. Bani-Sadr's authority.
For the first time, Ayatollah Khomeini has publicly criticized the fundamentalist street mobs that have provided insuperable muscle for Ayatollah Beheshti's challenge to the President's power.
"The masses cannot govern the country," Ayatollah Khomeini said from his Tehran home June 10, "or there would be anarchy."
The Ayatollah's son, Ahmad, went further June 14. Ridiculing the mobs' favored slogan, he told Iran's national news agency: "If 'there is no party but the party of Allah' means beating up people, then they have discredited Allah."
Ayatollah Khomeini's son-in-law, Shahabuddin Eshraqi, meanwhile has served warning that revolutionary Iran must begin to seek long-range stability. "God is with Bani-Sadr," he said. "One must confirm him [in authority]. . . those who wish to crush Bani-Sadr and his like must know that society will crush them."
Yet the nagging question for many diplomats and Iranian analysts is whether an aging, ailing, Ayatollah named Khomeini can change his spots.
With the traditional caveat that anything can happen in revolutionary Iran, most observers suspect he cannot.
Although never so forcefully, Ayatollah Khomeini in the past has offered explicit public support for his President. What the Ayatollah has not offered is the day-to-day political intervention needed to convert such words into practice.
In the tradition of Shiite Islamic teachers, he has preferred to remain above the fray, intervening only when forced to by events. The most recent such event was a violent June 12 clash between fundamentalist mobs and leftists after a Tehran political rally.
The Ayatollah's intervention consistently has taken the form of pronouncements, left for others to interpret and implement. Such pronouncements have not enabled Mr. Bani-Sadr to convert his landslide presidential victory into real political power.
A growing number of Tehran analysts now suggest that supremacy in the streets , in the mosques, and in a legislature given wide rein by Iran's new Constitution, makes eventual victory for Ayatollah Beheshti's IRP much more likely.
Western diplomats, pointing to occasionally "moderate" statements by Ayatollah Beheshti on the hostage question before the presidential election, argue that the IRP's main interest in keeping the captives in Iran has been to weaken Mr. Bani-Sadr's authority.
These diplomats, and Iranian analysts, suspect that should Ayatollah Beheshti win the power struggle outright, he would see the continued hostage-holding as a potential lever for challenging his own hold on the country.
In Iran's recently invested Majlis (parliament), which Ayatollah Khomeini has charged with resolving the hostage issue, Ayatollah Beheshti commands the largest single voting block.
It is in parliament, over the choice of Mr. Bani-Sadr's prime minister, that the struggle between the President and Ayatollah Beheshti seems to be coming to a head.
The mastermind of Mr. Bani-Sadr's January presidential campaign said only days after the election that "it will be extremely dangerous if the first Majlis sets out to challenge the President, because the whole system will be paralyzed."
He was right. The Constitution makes Iran's President "next in rank" to Ayatollah Khomeini but then says he can do just about nothing without parliamentary approval. This includes naming a prime minister.
While unleashing thinly veiled attacks on each other in their client newspapers, Mr. Bani-Sadr and Ayatollah Beheshti seem to have taken wildly divergent stands on the naming of revolutionary Iran's first head of government.
The President is understood to want one of his own supporters in the post, or at least a compromise candidate capable of defusing parliamentary challenges to his authority.
Ayatollah Beheshti has made it clear that, so far, he has no intention of playing ball.
That, in the view of most Tehran analysts, leaves three possibilities:
* Ayatollah Khomeini, if he were to change his spots, could impose a compromise candidate and forcefully direct Ayatollah Beheshti and his parliamentary colleagues to support him.
* President Bani-Sadr could bow to political realities, give in, and make the best of whatever limited authority he is conceded.
* Or Iran could end up with the political statemate foreseen by the President's campaign chief.
"Unless Ayatollah Khomeini suddenly brings everyone into line and keeps them there," concluded a Western diplomat stationed here throughout Iran's revolutionary process, "I think we must finally realize that a Bani-Sadr is impossible, and that a genuine consolidation of power by Ayatollah Beheshti is certainly the next best thing.
"The greatest danger in this power struggle -- for Iran and for the hostages -- is that no one at all may win."