The man to whom the West has looked for "moderation" in Iran, President Bani-Sadr, has his back to the wall. Only six months after his smashing election victory, he faces a grim variety of threats:
* His religious hard-line opponents have outmaneuvered him politically. The control parliament; are intent on foisting a revolutionary radical on him as prime minister; and could well succeed in reducing the beleaguered President to a figurehead.
* His one-time strong supporter, Ayatollah Khomeini, has taken to scolding him and his government for alleged lack of revolutionary and Islamic zeal. This appears to signal a shift of crucial Ayatollah backing away from the President and toward his religious hard-line critics.
* All this infighting is taking place gainst a deteriorating background of economic chaos as well as growing anarchy in Tehrn's streets and the nation's provinces.The explosion of three car bombs in central Tehran July 23 (the worst bombing incidents since the revolution) and the continuing stream of executions by firing squad underline the current tensions.
The struggle between President Bani-Sadr and his clerical opponents over appointment of a prime minister reached a climax this week. In a surprise move on July 22, President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr wrote a brief note to Ayatollah Khomeini saying he thought the Imam's son, Ahmad, was "one of the best qualified persons for the post of prime minister of the country."
The elder Khomeini's reply was cold and to the point: "My son Ahmad," he said , "is a servant of the nation and can best serve the nation if he is free."
The move was seen as a last-ditch effort by the Iranian President to save himself from having to appoint a nominee of the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP). It failed. If he cannot soon find someone of his own choice, he may be forced to appoint an IRP man and find himself reduced to a figurehead.
The man the IRP is preparing to foist upon him is Jalaluddin Farsi, a member of the party's central council and the party's nominee for the presidency in January.
Bani-Sadr missed having to face Farsi in the presidential race in January after opponents of the IRP man claimed he was of Afghan parentage. The challenge is more serious now because Farsi's parentage is no problem. The IRP is building him up as a man who is far more revolutionary than Bani-Sadr.
The party's newspaper has published an interview with Farsi in which he claimed he had been in touch with the "Guardians of Islam" group, which attempted to assassinate former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar this month in Paris. He is also said to have been in close alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization for several years and adviser to PLO chief Yasser Arafat.
Farsi's "revolutionary credentials" take on added importance because Ayatollah Khomeini has severely criticized the government for not having acted in a revolutionry enough manner during the entire period since February 1979.
What has probably shaken the Iranian President more is that earlier in the week another prominent IRP member, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, was elected speaker of the Iranian parliament by a comfortable majority -- 146 out of 196 members present. Having more or less proved its strength in the house, the IRP is in no mood for compromise.
The President faces growing political discontent, economic chaos, and anarchy. During the past week, he proved himself totally unable to control attacks on the offices of several political organizations. Pasdars (revolutionary guards) stood and watched as the central offices of the National Front, the Tudeh (communist party), and youth branch of the Democratic Party were attacked in Tehran. They also did not lift a finger when the offices of an independent newspaper, Bamdad, were taken over late July 22.
When the conspiracy to overthrow the Islamic Republic was discovered about two weeks ago, Bani-Sadr tried to use it to his advantage by taking credit for the discovery of the plot. This, too, may now backfire.
There is speculation that the huge explosions that shook central Tehran July 23, killing at least six people and injuring more than 100, may be a prelude of worse to come. The evening before, a secret radio station set up by Bakhtiar supporters outside Iran warned Iranian listeners that if even one of those being tried for the conspiracy were executed, the entire Tehran bazaar would be blown up.