Can Bani-Sadr fight back?

The peaking of the campaign against Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and the violence that erupted in Tehran this weekend raise several important questions: * Why did Bani-Sadr's supporters leave it so late to take to the streets to try to thwart the Shia Muslim fundamentalists' move to oust him from the presidency?

* Do the antifundamentalist forces have the strength and the numbers successfully to challenge the fundamentalists' mass organizations?

* Indeed, can Bani-Sadr or any other comparatively moderate potential "strong man" make a comeback against the forces of fundamentalism?

The fundamentalists' campaign against Bani-Sadr reached new heights June 21 with the Iranian revolutionary prosecutor-general ordering the President's arrest. This came only hours after the fundamentalist-dominated Majis (parliament) had voter overwhelmingly (177 to 1, with a handful of abstentions or absences) to declare the President politically incompetent. The proceedings were intended to lead to his impeachment or dismissal, but that had not yet occurred at time of writing.

Earlier the fundamentalist campaign had gathered momentum with street mobs calling for Bani-Sadr's death. The fundamentalists, like a Pied Piper, can call out these largely illiterate mobs at will. (The fundamentalists' other mass organization is the armed "revolutionary guards" or Pasdarans, most of whom are now fighting alongside the regular military on the Iraq front.)

The beleaguered President has not been seen for more than a week. When the Majlis voted against him, his whereabouts were still unknown. His wife and some members of his family were reported arrested in Tehran as they were allegedly distributing leaflets June 20. Before disappearing, Mr. Bani-Sadr had repeatedly refused suggestions that he compromise or make a deal with the fundamentalists. He had also resisted calls for his resignation.

One of the reasons he was fighting to retain the presidency, he told the Paris newspaper Le Monde earlier this month, was that he saw his remaining in office as a dike against opposition violence. If he resigned, he explained, the hitherto largely silent opposition to the fundamentalists would erupt into violence and a second revolution would be unleased.

The fundamentalists are already calling the violence of June 20 -- in which at least 19 were reported killed and more than 200 injured -- a counterrevolution.

The best-organized and biggest opposition group is the Islamic, but Marxist-influenced, Mujahideen-e Khalq. They were reportedly in the vanguard of the pro-Bani-Sadr forces doing battle on the streets of Tehran over the weekend.

A recent issue of The Economist of London estimated the strength of the Mujahideen-e Khalq at about 100,000. They are armed and trained along classic urban guerrilla lines. They were strong on university campuses -- which is one of the reasons the fundamentalist authorities have kept the universities closed.

Another significant radical armed guerrilla group is the Fedayeen-e Khalq, said by The Economist to be about 80,000 strong. Atheist Marxists, they are split between opposition to the fundamentalists and support for the orthodox pro-Moscow Iranian Communists in the Tudeh Party.

Paradoxically, the Tudeh Party supports the fundamentalists, at least overtly. For this it gets no thanks from the usually anti-Russian and antiatheist fundamentalists. But the Tudeh Party sticks to its odd line apparently to facilitate its eventual infiltration of the bureaucracy, should the fundamentalists finally establish their completely theocratic state and society.

Scanning the spectrum of potential opposition to the fundamentalists, one cannot overlook the armed forces. As President of the republic, Mr. Bani-Sadr was nominal commander in chief of the armed forces -- until removed from that position by Ayatollah Khomieni June 10.

After Iraq launched its war on Iran last September, Mr. Bani-Sadr deliberately cultivated the military and spent much of his time at the front. Inevitably the question arises: How great is the potential following or support for him among the military?

Interestingly, when Ayatollah Khomeini fired Mr. Bani-Sadr from his top military slot, he filled the vacancy with Gen. Valiollah Fallahi, the Army chief of staff. There are reports that General Fallahi is, in fact, very close to Mr. Bani-Sadr. These have led to speculation that General Fallahi's association with the President helped him get the top job -- in the sense that Ayatollah Khomeini's choice of him was an insurance against possible rebellion by pro-Bani-Sadr elements in the military.

In the classic pattern of revolution through the centuries, stability after an interval of revolutionary and internecine upheaval is usually restored by an authoritarian military figure in the mold of a Bonaparte or a Cromwell. Some outsiders wonder whether General Fallahi might subsequently emerge in this role.

Another possible candidate for the role is Adm. Ahmad Madani. He was governor of oil- rich Khuzestan province in the early days of the revolution, ran as a candidate in last year's presidential election, and came in second to Mr. Bani-Sadr. Admiral Madani is now biding his time in exile in Europe.

The hounding of Mr. Bani-Sadr in recent weeks is also part of the classical pattern of revolution -- in which a revolution usually devours its own children.

In Iran, the devourers over the past 21 months have been the forces of Shia Muslim fundamentalism, identified with the Islamic Republican Party (IRP) led by Ayatollah Beheshti. The devoured have been Muslim supporters of the revolution who are loyal to Ayatollah Khomeini but wanted to stop short of the full-blown theocracy -- obscurantist in Western eyes -- preached by the IRP.

The devoured have one thing in common: Their vision of post-Shah revolutionary Islamic Iran was tempered by their exposure to the West in one way or another.

They include: Ayatollah Khomeini's first choice as prime minister after the fall of the Shah, Mehdi Bazargan; the revolution's first foreign minister, Ibrahim Yazdi; its first head of radio and television, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh; and now its first elected President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr -- maybe not yet completely devoured.

Ayatollah Khomeini's role throughout this process has been equivocal. It might be described as neutral on the side of the fundamentalists. Messrs. Bazargan, Yazdi, Ghotbzadeh, and Bani-Sadr all began by enjoying his favor. But in the crunch he bowed to the fundamentalist tide against them.

Mr. Bani-Sadr's position was unique and paradoxical. Himself the son of an ayatollah, he was Ayatollah Khomeini's most trusted adviser during the period of exile in France. He was Ayatollah Khomeini's favorite in last year's presidential election, in which he got more than 70 percent of the vote.

He saw this as a convincing popular mandate. But when selected, he found himself isolated and neutralized as a nonfundamentalist in the presidency.

From the outset the President made it clear that he intended to use his office to tame fundamentalists. Small wonder then that the battle lines were quickly drawn. In the face of the increasingly savage fundamentalist campaign against him, Mr. Bani-Sadr became vulnerable on two counts:

1. One elected President of the republic back in early 1980, he failed to make any vigorous attempt to cultivate a civilian power base of his own at the grass-roots level.

2. He allowed himself to be seen by his fundamentalist foes -- and with some validity -- as a rallying point for all the opposition forces across the political spectrum, including the radical left, which want to thwart the IRP's efforts to turn Iran into a theocracy.

Iran specialist William Beeman of Brown University says that this equivocal relationship with the opposition locked Mr. Bani-Sadr into a catch-22 situation. It prevented him from responding favorably to the offers of accommodation or reconciliation coming from his erstwhile patron Ayatollah Khomeini.

By refusing to compromise, Bani-Sadr at least preservers his integrity for a hypothetical comeback if he is defeated now and survives to fight on from exile or elsewhere.

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