Bani-Sadr ouster gives all power to the clergy

The ousting of Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr has eliminated the last constraints on the absolute authority of the country's radical clergy. Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the speaker of the Majlis (parliament), has triumphantly called in Iran's third revolution. Ex-President Bani-Sadr, not seen in public for more than a week and said to be in hiding inside Iran, had gloomily prophesied it to be the victory of dictatorship.

The power struggle between the two sides has raged for 17 months, ever since Bani-Sadr beat the clergy's Islamic Republic Party (IRP) candidate in a landslide victory to become Iran's first elected president.

Much like ex-Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, whose liberal government fell when the US Embassy hostages were taken in 1979 in what Ayatollah Khomeini called Iran's second revolution, Bani-Sadr soon found that his initiatives as a statesman were constantly being overruled in favor of those being made by the professed "men of God." And without a party of his own to fall back on, he was never able to activate his popular support to wrest for himself any real power.

The result was a recasting of the Bani-Sadr image. Forgotten was his earlier reputation as a religious fanatic and as a politically indecisive Khomeini yes-man. He came to be seen as a moderate, representing the hopes of the disaffected middle class, the Islamic-Marxist Mujahideen, and the West.

Hedged in on all sides by the IRP establishment, he increasingly lost the trappings of a president and came more and more to resemble a hapless opposition leader. But the executive prerogative still left to him the power of the veto, and he continued to use it liberally in his struggle with the clergy, blocking Majlis legislation and refusing to confirm the appointment of two IRP-sponsored Cabinet ministers.

By October of last year, the extremist clergy had had enough of Bani-Sadr's playing devil's advocate, and felt ready and sufficiently strong to throw him out. They would probably have done so, had the war with Iraq not conveniently intervened and offered Bani-Sadr a reprieve. As it happened, it took seven more months before they finally succeeded in eliminating him from the scene.

The battle between Bani-Sadr and the IRP was fought over where to draw the line between Islam and the practical requirements of government. It was the same battle waged and lost by all Iran's cast of moderate political leaders since the revolution began 2 1/2 years ago. The clergy emerged victorious each time because for them there is no such dividing line; Islamic law is all-inclusive. For men such as Mr. Bazargan, former Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, and even moderate Ayatollah Shariat- Madari (who for over a year openly challenged Khomeini's interpretation of the revolution), there eventually came a point where the problems of modern Iran exceeded the dictates of the Koran.

Bani-Sadr was the last of the group and by far the most difficult for the radical clergy to overcome. To clear the way for the theologically pure republic they so adamantly believe in, they had to impeach their country's first president, a nationally popular man who for a very long time was politically and religiously one of them, and who was closer than most will ever be to Ayatollah Khomeini.

For Khomeini himself, the battle was no easy test of his powers as the faghihm or supreme Islamic authority, as written into Iran's revolutionary Constitution. By Shiite Islamic tradition, the faghihm is a sage above the fray, not supposed to take sides but rather to aid in drawing diverse points of view into a consensus. His role is to arbitrate, not to overrule.

Thus in the showdown between Bani-Sadr and the IRP, Khomeini seemed loathe to get publicly involved or to issue his usual sweeping condemnations. When stripping Bani-Sadr of his title as commander of the armed forces, for example, Khomeini did not hesitate to assure the country that he could continue as president. Nonetheless, when the groundswell went in favor of the clergy, there was no question but the Khomeini would push aside any personal feeling he might have for his former protege and pronounce Bani-Sadr a counterrevolutionary and obstructor of Islamic law.

The clergy's continued success politically stems directly from the fact their interpretation of the Koran coincides with the dictates of Khomeini's conscience. How could it be otherwise? They are men of the same cloth.

With Bani-Sadr out of the ruling conclave, the powers of the president will, according to Article 131 of the Constitution, be divided among speaker of the Majlis Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Prime Minister Ali Rajai, and Ayatollah Muhammad Behesti, president of the Supreme Court. Just by chance, this is the very triumvirate that had captured most of the power during Bani-Sadr's presidency, and thereby constituted his most vituperative foes. Although a new president is supposed to be elected within 50 days, many observers in Tehran believe this period might be extended due to the war.

Because Bani-Sadr exercized very little actual power during his presidency, the country's policies will probably change only minimally.

If Bani-Sadr can choose, instead of "martyrdom," to flee the country, he could very well become the first viable opposition leader against the clergy from exile. The time is ripe: The opposition forces are becoming disillusioned enough to begin compromising with one another.

Roxanne Farmanfarmaian holds dual Iranian-American citizenship and edited the Tehran political journal Iranian in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution.m

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.