Why Iran at last may say 'yes' on hostages; An inside look at how fundamentalism is shaping Islamic revolution's political system

The southern Iranian city of Ahvaz has been the focus of intensive Iraqi shelling for some time. Yet when I passed a few days there recently, I saw how its remaining 40,000 residents reacted:

When the steady boom of the shelling intensified, whole families would mount to the roof of their one-or two-story houses to shout "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) into the hostile skies.

Their action might have been foolhardy. But it symbolized the deep-rooted and sincere religious fervor with which the 35 million people of this revolutionary country approach the many problems confronting them.And understanding this religious fervor, with all the traditions and forms its particular Shiite Muslim mode has developed, is a key to understanding the resilience of Iran's revolution.

The politicians squabble acrimoniously in public.The economy has been buffeted by an exodus of specialists and the blockade imposed by the West. Iraqi troops have pushed more than a score of kilometers into the west of the country since September, yet the revolution survives, and indeed now seems on the military upswing.

How come?

From any experience in the country, I would answer that for most of the people of Iran, the setbacks seem completely secondary. The basic concept of the revolution is not alone that of the politicians, nor does it stem from the economy, nor from the Gulf war. Rather, it is the unique perception of social relationships these people's religion has given them, along with the special form of leadership developed throughout years of exile by their leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Iran has a government. It has a president, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, a prime minister, Muhammad Ali Rajai, and most of the other usual ministers. It also has a parliament.

Yet in a very real way, none of these institutions has any direct bearing on the course of the revolution.

What really matters in the triangular interaction between Ayatollah Khomeini, the ordinary Iranians who are the foot soldiers of the revolution, and the deep religious perception they all share.

Thus, when the wrangles between the politicians appear to threaten the revolution's course, Khomeini can summon his President and his prime minister to the modest two- story house he lives in, just north of Tehran.

He reminds his President that it was the people who brought Mr. Bani-Sadr back from exile in Paris. And he reminds the prime minister that it was the people who freed Mr. Rajai from prison.

So stop quarreling and get on with serving the people, is the Ayatollah's natural conclusion. And they had better listen.

It is in such ways, by standing completely aside from the political institutions in the country yet exercising a final veto over their work, the Khomeini exercises his perception of the role of revolutionary imam. This is based on traditional Shiite teaching, which says that each human must settle his own accounts with the one God, and nothing must interfere with this relationship.

For many of Khomeini's followers in the "khut-il-imam" (Imam's line), that includes all governments and political institutions. So Khomeini emerges at one and the same time the inspiration of the revolutionary government, and the leader of its opposition.

Khomeini maintains his relationship with "the people" in numerous ways to developed throughout years of underground opposition to the Shah, many of them spent in exile.

During his underground years, one of Khomeini's first battles was within the religious establishiment itself. Cautious religious scholars were against "politicizing" the work of the Shiite religious colleges. But gradually Khomeini's ideas began to win out. The colleges became centers of opposition to the Shah's regime, their graduates forming a nationwide network working for the Islamic republic.

Nowadays, these activists and their lay counterparts report regularly back, direct to the Imam's house. The house opens onto as as-yet-unfinished hosseiniyah, the kind of Islamic cultural center through which the mullahs have always rallied their followers. Every day, the Imam walks through to the hosseiniyah to talk with his representatives from throughout Iran and the Muslim world.

Those with high-priority missions are called into closed session inside the private quarters, which are a beehive of activity with family members and aides going about their business. From all building opposite, Revolutionary Guards organize duty rosters for patrolling the whole region around the village.

At especially sensitive periods, the Imam will emerge onto the low balcony outside his house to speak gravely for hours with the thousands of followers gathered outside.

In all his dealings, Ayatollah Khomeini has two constant traits that close aides notice:

* His primary concern, when considering any course of action, is its effect on the morale of all the parties involved.

* He absolutely refuses to engage in political horse-trading with any outside or internal party.

These two traits were shown last November, when some Iranian leaders, including President Bani-Sadr and Prime Minister Rajai, urged releasing the American hostages as an election-eve gift to President Carter.

"The Imam had promised the people not to horse-trade with Carter but to bring him down, and Carter fell," people close to Khomeini told me.

"The possible material gains from America were not important to him. What was important was the issue of the morale of either side -- to show the Americans he was still in a position to strength and could break Carter's head. At the same time, embarrassing the new US administration by leaving the problem unresolved on its plate."

The actual mechanisms by which the Imam relates to his followers are deeply rooted in Shiite tradition. Every Shiite thinker learns to analyze current problems by a process called ijtihad, which is the interpretation of transitory phenomena in light of certain religiously ordained principles.

Every individual should ideally carry out his own ijtihad, and Shiite tradition is certainly against submitting to any form of party diktat. "But the revolution can contain all its different ijtihadat," Khomeini aides say.

When vital decisions are to be made, these interpretations must all be gathered into an ijma (consensus). This is the particular job in the revolutionary Constitution of the man chosen as imam. And faithful to this role , Khomeini must make a point of hearing all the points of view before defining the consensus.

Based as it is on Shiite theology, the revolution also operates largely through Shiite and general Muslim institutions. It is not only the hosseiniyat that are important in revolutionary Iran, the mosques themselves have now in many places become centers of revolutionary organization.

Down in Ahvaz, 20 kilometers from the front line against the invading Iraqis, the mosques buzz with the activities of the paseej (general mobilization).

Buy day, I saw local residents flocking to the mosques to deal with the thousand-and- one social problems facing a city at war.Colorful Arab tribesmen came in to volunteer in the war effort. One of the central mosques had been turned into a "center for combatting hoarding and monopoly."

In the evening, the mosques took on a different hue. Youngsters from the passej gathered there, picked up their arms, and took off for the countryside to carry out maneuvers with live ammunition. Others, already trained, threw a security network between all the mosques, with regular patrols and roadblocks to catch suspected Iraqi infiltrators.

"We have returned the mosques to their original role as centers of social organization," exulted one young gun-toting volunteer.

It is precisely this marriage between revolutionary militancy and centuries-old tradition that has kept the Iranian revolution alive.

Next, how different Iranian leaders view international issu es, including the war with Iraq.

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