Iran's mullahs face choice: isolation or extermination

A relentless campaign of extermination is forcing Iran's fundamentalist leadership to confront equally unpalatable alternatives: * Either the leaders of what is still conceived as a popular revolution must isolate themselves behind bullet-proof barriers, heavily armed bodyguards, and a steel curtain of repression.

* Or they must face a continued thinning out of their ranks by well-organized political assassins and an erosion of their control over the country.

Following the Aug. 30 bomb explosion which killed both President Muhammad Ali Rajai and Prime Minister Muhammad Javad Bahonar, the choice of alternatives is already forcing a "showdown" among the ruling fundamentalists, according to sources reached by telephone in Tehran.

"The government now has one preoccupation, and that is how to physically stay alive," commented a senior diplomat in the Iranian capital. "A dictatorship that cannot even defend its own representatives is doomed to failure."

Other sources in Tehran says it is "remarkable that Iran's government hitherto has avoided declaring a state of emergency." They point out, however, that such a move would "constitute a betrayal of the Islamic revolution's own principles."

Following the earlier June 28 bombing of the Islamic Republican Party's headquarters in Tehran which killed 74 prominent Iranians including Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti, Iran's leaders vowed that they would not allow the armed resistance to drive a wedge between them and the people.

But the toll of murders and assassinations during the past two months is practically unparalleled: one president, one prime minister, one head of the supreme court, one governor, four ministers, six deputy ministers, 30 members of parliament, and an unknown but large number of local officials and Revolutionary Guards.

Iran's fundamentalist clergy has reacted to its destruction by executing ever larger numbers of what it believes to be its opponents. So far, there have been approximately 700 officially admitted executions. But sources in the Tehran told the Monitor Aug. 31 that the true figure is much higher.

Addressing the crowds who had gathered in front of the Majlis (parliament) Aug. 30, to accompany Rajai's and Bahonar's remains to the cemetery, Iranian Prosecutor General Rabbani Amlashi ordered the revolutionary courts to act like Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Amlashi pointed out that Ali had not hesitated to decapitate 4,000 people in one day "when necessary."

Observers in Tehran point out that the regime's repressive tactics are contributing to its demise. More and more families are being affected by the wave of executions.

"The more people you execute, the more infiltrators you create within the regime who will seek revenge from within," said one.

A well-placed source in Tehran comments, "somebody should think of the effects of such a policy. Of course you can drag anyone to Evin prison and execute him. But the regime's enemies are not in Evin prison, they are the traitors within the regime itself. The most important question facing the government now is how could this happen."

Meanwhile, Iran's armed resistance -- assumed to be focussed around the left-wing Islamic Mujahideen-e Khalq guerrillas who claim to have a following of 100,000 armed people -- is successfully reducing the number of Iranian leaders strong enough to take decisions. The number of these leaders now can be counted on the fingers of one hand:

* Parliament speaker Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani.

* The chief justice, Ayatollah Abdulkarim Mussavi Ardabeli, who recently escaped two attempts on his life.

* The leader of the Tehran Friday prayer meetings, Hojatolislam Sayes Ali Khameni, who just spent months in a hospital following an assassination attempt.

* The minister of the interior, Muhammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani.

Despite the steady elimination of leaders and other officials, well-placed sources in Tehran maintain that Iran's fundamentalists have not yet lost control of the situation. But they are increasingly forced to rely on their own strength in settling affairs.

New presidential elections must be held within 50 days according to the country's constitution. A new prime minister can only be appointed by the newly elected president. Distrusting both police and armed forces, Iran's fundamentalists are left with the Revolutionary Guards and the neighborhood komitehs.

"Immobility is a result of a situation in which no one can be trusted," commented one source in Tehran. But, he added, "with its economy in shambles and its southern and western frontiers invaded by the Iraqis, important decisions must be taken. Immobility only facilitates collapse."

Comparing Rajai's and Bahonar's funeral to the funeral of Ayatollah Beheshti and 73 other two months ago, eyewitnesses remarked that the Aug. 31 ceremony was simpler but much more emotional, and with many more people than in June. Alongside the apparently genuine public mourning, however, was a debate how such an attack could have been repeated.

"How could the government be so incredibly stupid?" asked one mourner. "They knew this was coming."

Portraits of the "martyrs" Rajai and Bahonar hastily printed between Sunday night and Monday morning now decorate the streets of Tehran. But observers in Iran describe the atmosphere as heavy with anxiety about what may happen next.

Speaking from Paris, former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr described Sunday's bomb attack as a natural reaction to the Iranian regime's campaign of terror. Earlier, Mr. Bani-Sadr predicted that Iran's regime would collapse if President Rajai, Prime Minister Bahonar, Chief Justice Ardabeli, parliament speaker Rafsanjani, and another figure (apparently Interior Minister Mahdavi-Kani) were killed. Despite Mr. Bani-Sadr's remarks, however, nobody truly suspects him of collaboration in the bombing of the Iranian premier's office.

"The people are waiting for something to happen, but definitely not for Bani-Sadr," commented one source in Tehran. This source is convinced that the former prime minister has "lost out" by fleeing the country. "No one is ready to fight for him, he has already been forgotten."

Iranians are now desperately searching for explanations and guidance. But if they turned this week to Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, they were in for a disappointment.

In a speech broadcast over Tehran radio, Khomeini remained aloof and vague, stressing the need for continued faith. According to one ranking diplomat in Tehran, "what the people want is practical instruction, thoughts, explanations, and guidance. That's exactly what they did not get."

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.