Revival of the power struggle inside IRan is threatening to dash hope for early release of the 52 United States hostages, held now for 53 weeks by their militant captors.
The hostages have been pawns in that internal power struggle ever since they were seized on that first Sunday in November just over a year ago. They have been used repeatedly by clerical zealots to outmaneuver foes and tighten the hold of fundamentalist Shia Islam on all the levers of power in post-Shah revolutionary Iran.
The starkest evidence of the revival of the power struggle in the past 10 days is the two-pronged assault by fundamentalists seen in:
* The arrest Nov. 7 of former foreign minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, a constant critic of the fundamentalists from the nationalist flank. Significantly, he is an ideological ally of relatively secular President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, whom the fundamentalists have always wanted to shunt aside completely.
* The resumption of the trial Nov. 4 of Muhammad Reza Saadati, a former leader of the progressive, revolutionary organization, Mujahideen-e Khalq, perceived by the fundamentalists as the biggest immediate threat to them from the left.
The fundamentalists probably feel the need for this offensive to ensure themselves against charges that they have done a 180-Degree turn and are now advocating release of the hostages -- a move they repeatedly blocked when advocated earlier by both Mr. Ghotbzadeh and Mr. Bani-Sadr.
When the latter two tried to get the hostages released back before the unsuccessful US rescue attempt last April, they were checkmated as wanting to sell out to the Americans.
Since then, the unhappy Mr. Bani-Sadr has been maneuvered into near-ineffective isolation in the presidency of the Islamic Republic as a result of the fundmentalists getting control of parliament, the judiciary, and the Cabinet of their prime ministerial candidate, Muhammad Ali Rajai. Their political arm is the Islamic Republican Party of Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Beheshti, which now constitutes the fundamentalist establishment.
What brought about the 180-degree turn of the fundamentalists on the hostage issue was the Iraqi invasion of Iran in mid-September. Spare parts for Iran's US-built warplanes and access to Iranians assets, frozen by President Carter in the wake of the hostage seizure, both became urgent if the government of Iran was successfully to counter the military assault from Iraq.
All indications point to the government having decided that the only way to unfreeze what the US held was to unfreeze what Iran held -- the hostages -- and to try to strike a deal with President Carter, already seen as fighting a desperate battle for reelection.
If that was the Iranian plan, then (to quote the Economist of London) "Iran sent in its absentee ballot too late."
Now the fundamentalists are stuck with: (1) a lame-duck Jimmy Carter, whose main incentive is no longer securing reelection but determination to prove to critics and cynics at least that he remains worthy of the presidency and does not sell US honor short; (2) a president-elect in the person of Ronald Reagan, whose election campaign leaves the image of a man likely to be tougher than Mr. Carter with Iran over the hostages.
The people on whom the fundamentalists are turning are their critics who, in fundamentalist eyes, seem best placed to profit from the latest turn in the hostage crisis.
On the nationalist or liberal flank are Mr. Ghotbzadeh, Mr. Bani-Sadr, and Mehdi Bazargan. The fundamentalists "picked off" Ghotbzadeh first, using as their pretext an outspoken television attack by him on fundamentalist excesses.
Both Mr. Bani-Sadr and Mr. Bazargan have newspapers of their own, in which they, too, belabor the fundamentalists. What happens now to those newspapers will indicate how far the fundamentalists are willing to go against critics on this flank.
The Mujahideen's paper already has been closed down. There are continuing reports of Mujahideen leaders being arrested. The Mujahideen were the only significant group to voice opposition to "premature" release of the hostages when the fundamentalists began moving that way last month. They are the best placed now to taunt the fundamentalists with the cry: "We told you so."
There remain the militant hostage holders. They have yet to deliver on their announced willingness to hand the hostages over to the government. And the government has yet to move to get them.
Perhaps the government feels it cannot brush aside the militants' warning, attached to their agreement to surrender the Americans: Freeing the hostages on terms short of the demand for their trial and for returning of the Sha and his wealth would have to be "based on reasons justifiable to the Iranian people."