Iran heading back toward Shah-type autocracy?

The mounting bloodshed in Iran appears to bring closer the day when the ruling fundamentalists lose either steam or will and are forced to yield power to somebody else.

At this stage there is too little evidence to enable anybody to forecast intelligently how far away this day is or who eventually will take over from the clergy -- be they from the left, the right, or the military.

But the spreading chaos of the past two years of revolutionary upheaval makes it increasingly probable that when Iran emerges from its present trauma it will find itself with a regime not very different in its authoritarian aspects from those of the ousted Pahlavi Shahs.

That, at least, is the opinion of Iran specialists such as Michael Fischer of Rice University. And what a cruel irony it would be for the suffering people of Iran!

Gone already are the dreams and expectations of that January afternoon in 1979 when this writer stood in Ferdowsi Square in Tehran on the day that the Shah went into exile and a deliriously happy and friendly crowd acted as if it had arrived at the threshold of utopia.

Gone, too, are the pious hopes of that February morning two weeks later when the writer watched the patriarchal Ayatollah Khomeini step from the plane bringing him home from exile to what so many of his compatriots prayed could be a new Iran -- a country where government was tempered by the mercy and justice associated with religion.

Instead, the revolution has petered out into a murderous process of mutual elimination between government and opposition. Several more political killings were reported Sept. 1, including at least one religious leader in Tehran.

The two massive bomb explosions, in June and last weeked, at the very seat of power of the governing fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP) are evidence of the growing hostility to the hardline clergy who have forced the Iranian revolution along the narrow road of their own religious zealotry.

Everything that the clerics in political positions have said since last Sunday's bomb killed both the President and his prime minister indicates that those now fighting to cling to power still see the firing squad as their best weapon for survival.

It is true that in an apparent move to lift himself above the current internecine political struggle and stay with religion, the Ayatollah spoke out Sept. 1 for a tempering of the regime's harsh measures. In dealing with their opponents, he said, the political leaders must not go beyond the laws of Islam.

Yet despite such gestures, Ayatollah Khomeini is at the center of the current disillusionment and alientation. If that perception continues to percolate through a growing body of Iranian opinion, he cannot escape being himself a target for assassination.

But as Mangol Bayat, an Iran specialist at Harvard University points out, to make the Ayatollah of all people a martyr at this stage in martyr-obsessed Iran might well give a new lease of life to the IRP and to religious fundamentalism generally. The more intelligent members of the assassination squads of the opposition, Professor Bayat adds, must be aware of this.

The nature of the two big bomb explosions in Tehran that within two months killed so many of the IRP leaders has heightened speculation about the identity of those opposition assassination squads.

The professionalism and effectiveness of the explosions have prompted some observers to suggest that those responsible are not necessarily from the most open of the opposition groups, the left-wing Islamic Mujahideen-e Khalq, but may be from a whole spectrum of alternatives not yet ready to declare themselves or come into the open. To put it another way, the opposition struggle may be moving into unknown hands underground and away from the streets.

If the Mujahideen were responsible, they could be operating at two levels: one an inner, secret ring committed to dangerous operations aimed at killing off the topmost fundamentalists; the other more in the open to organize mass protests whenever or wherever that may be risked.

But organizing such protests is an increasing problem for the Mujahideen or any other opposition group. "The populace is scared by the ferocity of the fundamentalists' ruthless repression. The clergy still have at their disposal much of the illiterate mass of Tehran's slums, not averse to thuggery when egged on in the name of religion or for other considerations. In additions, there is no visible credible leader for the potential opposition to rally behind.

Travelers coming out of Iran say that despite all former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr's brave talk in exile in France, it does not look as if he has much hope of a comeback or of reestablishing himself as an alternative to the men who ousted him.

Mujahideen leader Massoud Rajavi, who fled into exile with Mr. Bani-Sadr because the fundamentialist net was closing in on him, has better credentials than the former president. But Mr. Rajavi is bound to lose points by leaving his troops leaderless to face the fury of the fundamentalists at home.

Any thought that the late Shah's son and heir, now in exile in Egypt, has a future in a restoration of the monarchy is simply unrealistic. The Pahlavi dynasty is too discredited in Iran to be welcomed back.

Also in the arena and not to be overlooked are the old-style pro-Moscow Communists of Iran's Tudeh Party. Unlike others on the left, they made the tactical decision from the start not to oppose the fundamentalists and to support Ayatollah Khomeini, at least publicly. Presumably the Tudeh calculation was that this would give them an inside position to take over from the fundamentalists if the latter faltered -- or even initally, to come to the fundamentalists' resuce and then push them aside.

This is a gamble that could pay off, provided the Tudeh Party has not dicredited itself too much by its open support for the increasingly loathed clerical extremists. And there is another burdensome albatross around the Tudeh Party's neck, as Professor Fischer points out: its longstanding ties with Moscow , for most Persians no friend but a centuries-old traditional foe and threat.

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