Iranian leaders struggle to fill gap left by bombing and regain control

It was ironic as well as tragic. When the bomb went off Aug. 30 killing Iran's President and prime minister, they were discussing . . . internal security.

Along with the minister of defense, the chief of police, and several colonels believed to be former officers of Savak (the Shah's secret police), Iran's supreme security council also was pondering the creation of a new intelligence service.

Clearly the Iranian leaders were trying desperately to defend themselves against the rising toll of assassinations and to hit back at their illusive foes. Now, amid rumors of possible coups and internal maneuvering, Iran's remaining presidential councillors have moved to fill the sudden vacuum.

Parliamentary speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani and Chief Justice Ayatollah Moussavi Ardabili asked the Majlis Sept. 1 to appoint Interior Minister Muhammad Reza Mahadavi-Kani as the new prime minister.

Born in 1931 in a village near the Iranian capital, Mahadavi-Kani is considered one of the few strong Iranian leaders still alive. His record of opposition to the Pahlavi Shahs dates back to 1949. But Mahadavi-Kani is not a member of Iran's dominant Islamic Republican Party, and only has personal ties with it. Instead, he represents a segment of Iran's ruling clergy which bases its power on the revolutionary komitehs.

Meanwhile, to some observers in the Iranian capital, the death of President Rajai may prove a miscalculation on the part of Iran's armed opposition. Mr. Rajai -- described by well-placed sources in Tehran as "politically insignificant" -- was nonetheless popular as a man of the people, as a representative of the poor and the downtrodden whose supporlt is essential to the regime.

"But this is not a competition in morals and ethics," said one of these sources, adding that "this struggle is a question of cold-blooded calculation and tactics."

And the armed opposition's relentless campaign of extermination is certainly limiting the regime's choice of countermoves. Armed guerrillas swiftly and efficiently attacked a minibus carrying Revolutionary Guards Sept. 1 in the center of Tehran, killing two and wounding 10 others. Earlier the same day Radio Tehran reported the assassination of yet another clergyman.

Seeking a political solution would be creating the impression of surrender." said a well-placed source in Tehran. "But a continuation of the regime's campaign of almost blind revenge will only push the country further in the direction of disaster," he added.

Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, possibly aware of the pitfalls, appeared Sept. 1 to be telling Iran's fundamentalists to hold their horses. In a speech broadcast on Tehran Radio the Ayatollah ordered the revolutionary courts to observe Islamic law, "not to judge harsher than Islam and God demands, " to treat prisoners correctly and to release the innocent.

But the Ayatollah went on to say that "those who are corrupt on earth" -- the accusation raised against the regime's opponents -- "should be punished according to Islamic law. "Khomeini's remarks followed nine officially announced executions Aug. 30 and the unofficial execution of 30 others in tehran's Evin Prison immediately following the Aug. 30 bombing of the Iranian prime minister's office.

"Khomeini seems to be the moost intelligent person around. The problem is that he is not preventing a blind and harsh reaction, he is only limiting it," commented an observer in the Iranian capital by telephone.

The spiral of political assassinations and widespread executions appears to be speeding up developments in Iran directions no one yet dares to speculate about. Tehran boils over with rumors. No one clearly knows who is aligned with whom and which way things may go.

"Practically all the guys in Paris are out," says one source in Tehran, referring to former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Mujahideen leader Massoud Rajavi, former Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar and the supporters of the Shah.

"The only one who remains in people's minds are the guerrillas," he added. Rajavi's left-wing Islamic Mujahideen-e Khalq guerillas are generally given responsibility for the opposition's successful war of attrition against the regime.

And although uncertainty and discontent are widespread in Iran, observers there see no clear alternative yet to the fundamentalists capable of channeling the feelings of frustration and unrest into something more substantial.

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