The battle for control of revolutionary Iran is shifting to the scruffy remains of a once-mighty military force. Locked in bitter stalemate on the political front, relatively moderate President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and his Muslim fundamentalist rivals seem to suspect that support from the men with the guns ultimately may decide who wins out.
There has been growing commotion in the armed forces. First came a laughable "coup attempt" by a handful of disgruntled officers near the Iraqi frontier. Then came much more serious stirrings in and around Iran's Revolutionary Guard, a national army in everything but name and discipline.
As Iranian analysts see things, the Islamic extremists would like to neutralize the country's regular military once and for all, while taking undisputed hold of the militantly Muslim Revolutionary Guards, or Pasdaran.
Mr. Bani-Sadr, made nominal military commander in chief by a bedridden Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in February, would like all the fighting forces under effective presidential control.
A Tehran newspaper spoke of rumors June 16 that mr. Bani-Sadr also was planning to set up a personal armed force reminiscent of the Shah's Imperial Guard. Rumors, however, are a rial a dozen here.
Most local analysts suspect that the beleaguered President could not pull off such a scheme, even if he wanted to.
Worse, for a country where rising unemployment races with rising prices, is the prospect that unless the remote Ayatollah Khomeini finally muddies himself in day-to-day affairs, Iran's major power rivals will have as little luck taking hold of the military as in bringing order to civlian government.
One major cause for pessimism lies within the military itself.
Iran's "soldiers" dress more or less like military men. They carry weapons -- whether of US or European vintage, or the compact Uzi submachine gun attesting to former ties with Israel.
In the rebellious northwest province of Kurdistan, a big guns boom. Occasionally helicopter gunships fly. Warplanes have been said to bomb.
But the resemblance to things military seems to end there.
Tehran military analysts argue that the guerrilla war with Kurdish rebels in Kurdistan is largely a "safe," though nasty, one. It tkes, they say, neither great expertise nor much combat mettle for Army units and Pasdaran to unleash long-distance shell barrages on civilians and ragtag hill rebels.
Nor, the experts maintain, do high-altitude bombing sorties against primitively defended Kurdish targets make an air force.
The regular armed forces deeded by a militaristic Shah seem in shambles. Senior officers, in some cases, were killed off in the early days of the Khomeini regime. Some units either dissolved in fear and chaos or were disbanded.
Regular military and paramilitary forces numbering some 500,000 men have shrunk, by Western estimates, to less than one-third that size since the self-proclaimed "king of kings" was chased into exile 17 months ago.
Politics, meanwhile, has seeped into the barracks. Islamic "loyalists" are in command. Iranian nalysts say lower ranks present a motley assortment of political tendencies -- some Islamic, other leftist, with some isolated pockets of nostalgia for the "order" of the old regime.
Of the Shah's roughly 500 military aircraft, Tehran military experts estimate that only about one-fifth remain battle worthy. The number is said to be sure to shrink further as borderline jets are "cannibalized" for parts. A flock of idle, white Boeing 747s, formerly used for military transport, greets arrivals at Tehran International Airport like slumbering sea gulls. Fighter aircraft also are eroding for disuse, the absence of United States "advisers" who used to help keep them in shape, and a reported shortage of trained Iranian personnel to fill the void.
On the revolution's red-letter days, US-manufactured jets have screamed above throngs of demonstrators in impressive formation. Yet as one Iranian analyst puts it, "Parading a few planes is different from sending a credible air force into battle. A war situation would mean putting a lot of carefully tuned machines into the air, while rapidly and expertly servicing them between sorties."
The Navy, likewise, still has its major warships. But one foreign military expert commented recently, "It takes more than ships to make a navy. Iran now lacks sufficient trained personnel, as well as the discipline that makes or breaks any military force."
Perhaps fortunately for Iran, months of lackadaisical border clashes with Iraq have never escalated into even an imitation of all-out war. Both countries have internal problems; neither seems to have the heart for unbridled conflict, at least for the time being.