It is becoming increasingly apparent that real political power in Iran today is wielded not by President Bani-Sadr nor even by Ayatollah Khomeini but rather by the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP).
Recently the President has found himself being gradually hedged in on all sides by the fundamentalists. And now the Ayatollah himself has added his own criticisms, further undermining Bani-Sadr's hold on Iran's at least titular top post.
In response, the beseiged President has looked to his strongest card -- his support among ordinary Iranians who have him an overwhelming 75 percent of thie votes in the election of January, 1980. Specifically, he has just threatened (for the third time) to resign and ask the people in a referendum whether they want him to stay on.
"But so long as the war with Iraq is going on," one well-informed Iranian source told a foreign correspondent in Tehran recently, "he will probably no do so."
This is a crucial point because the IRP's current political maneuver seems to be to allow the war to be prolonged indefinitely. This tactic keeps both the Army and the President preoccupied -- leaving the party free to move about in the rear and consolidate its position.
Earlier this year, Ayatollah Khomeini appeared to be backing the president. In particular, he issued two stern warnings to the Mullahs not to alienate the people.
But a little over two months ago, when the power struggle was once again at a crisis point, the "Imam" (the Ayatollah) issued a 10-point decree barring the President and three fundamentalist leaders from making public speeches. This has worked against the President becuase in light of his smashing election victory he considers the people to be his direct power base and feels he must speak to them frequently to shore up his political strength.
The Ayatollah also set up a three-man commission to "solve the differences" between Bani-Sadr and the fundamentalists. The commission consists of three Ayatollahs, one of whom is the son-in-law of the Imam and has shown itself to be heavily biased in favor of the fundamentalists.
On June 5 the commission came out in open condemnation of the President for allegedly having violated the Imam's 10- point decree. It also asked the prosecutor general (another mullah) to take legal action against Bani-Sadr's newspaper and three other newspapers that support the president.
The fundamentalists may be the only Iranians who do not fully realize their own growing umpopularity -- and with it the declining popularity of Khomeini himself.
"The best thing that can happen to this country," one Iranian is quoted as saying recently, "is for Khomeini to die so that we can have another revolution and get rid of these mullahs. The quicker it happens the better because it will mean less suffering for the people."
A great number of Iranians believe Bani-Sadr will lead this other revolution, but doubt he will make a move so long as Khomeini is around. The President himself has said so in as many words, telling a press conference in Tehran on March 30, "I will not stand against the Imam."
His resignation threats are seen to be linked to another solution he has in mind for forcing and end to the political deadlock.
"If he resigns and calls for a referendum to confirm him in office," says an aide, "this would be the same as holding another presidential election. In that case parliamentary elections [also] would have to be held again."
If parliamentary elections are held now the president believes the Mullahs, who dominate the house, would be stripped of their seats because of their growing unpopularity at a time of endless shortages, economic chaos, and continuing war. He would then hope to find himself with a Majlis that is ready to work in tandem with him instead of trying to undermine his power while he is busy at the front.
There is a hitch in this idea also. To hold a referendum on any issue on which the President and parliament cannot agree requires the approval of two-thirds of the Majlis. But, those around the President contend that his resignation would probably compel the parliament to agree to a referendum or new elections.
But if he waits for the war to end before resigning, he may have a long wait.