The recent announcement by the Iranian authorities that Ayatollah Khomeini would be succeeded by an elected ruling council is an expression of wishful thinking because the monopoly position of the clerics in power is bound to end with the departure of Khomeini himself. For from the very beginning Khomeini alone defined the general character of the Islamic Republic and he alone can maintain its present course.
On Jan. 31, l979, as Khomeini's plane was approaching Tehran airport, a reporter asked him how he felt about his triumphant return after 14 years in exile. ''Hitchi,'' replied Khomeini, a colloquialism meaning ''nothing!'' This joyless response summarized Khomeini's plan for the revolution.
Even though Khomeini's political statements in exile were clearly against arbitrary rule, his formal writings on the nature of Islamic government demonstrate that he seriously considered the coercive reversal of Iran's socio-cultural development of the past century. Yet the actual gaining of absolute power to carry out such regressive transformation was as unexpected to him as it was to the Iranian people.
The truth is that few Iranians saw Khomeini as a threat to the progressive aspirations of the revolution. For while the idea of an ayatollah becoming a national ruler was unheard of, Khomeini's attacks on the Shah expressed the deep sentiments of the Iranian people. He used to condemn the Shah as a violator of human rights in Iran, but once firmly in power he reversed himself by mocking the very notion of human rights altogether. Now he even refers to Amnesty International as a ''satanic'' orgnization.
Three weeks after the fall of the Shah Khomeini returned to Qom, but instead of resuming his teaching he set out to consolidate his hold on the main instruments of rule in revolutionary Iran, namely the pasdaran (revolutionary guards), the komitehs (revolutionary committees), and the mullahs' judicial apparatus. And, once Khomeini thought he could get away with it, he moved to abolish all political groups except the Islamic Republican Party.
As time went on, Khomeini eliminated one by one all those who seemed less than anxious to submit to his wishes. Many of his old friends have been either silenced, imprisoned, exiled, or forced underground.
It is now clear that in all his anti-Shah activities, Khomeini was reacting more to the observable consequences of pseudo-modernization in the cultural sphere than opposition to political and economic oppression. He seems quite uninterested in the economic and political problems of Iran. He sees politics as a conspiracy and economics as a demeaning subject.
Today it is only on cultural matters such as education, art, entertaiment, courtship, and social and sexual mores that Khomeini has a coherent, though frightening, conception of what he wants -- a quick return to an imagined puritanical past. He believes there is only one legitimate mode of being and doing; and he knows to the very last details what the norms of behavior within that mode ought to be. Khomeini's puritanism is a joyless and morbid devotion to a God who demands constant sacrifice.
Khomeini does not represent the clergy of Iran. In fact, only a tiny minority of the clergy, following Khomeini, have arrogated to themselves the divine right to govern Iran. Many members of the clergy have already been executed, imprisoned, or forced underground; and three of the highest-ranking ayatollahs are under virtual house arrest.
There is widespread resistance to Khomeini's rule, which is why scores of its opponents are executed daily; close to 4,000 young men and women have been put before Khomeini's firing squads in the past six months alone. Khomeini's pasdaran and komitehs interfere in the most private aspects of life. Homes are entered and their occupants seized not only for political reasons but also for the mere suspicion of drinking, playing cards or chess, or listening to music. There are estimated to be more than 25,000 political prisoners in the country, and torture of the incarcerated people is routinely practiced. It is also estimated that another 25,000 dissidents have been driven underground.
Yet Khomeini seems to be secure in his position. His regime is intensely unpopular and frighteningly irrational, but as long as the earnings from oil exports delay the day of reckoning with the mounting economic problems and the unlimited use of force against the opposition continues, the Ayatollah is likely to remain in power.
However, it is certain that Khomeini's control cannot be transferred to anyone else. Fanaticism, fear, and punishment are the principal means of Khomeini's rule and as long as he is alive the use of these means will increase and intensify. But once he leaves the scene, his repressive machinery will collapse and a civil war may occur. From the subsequent chaos and fraternal bloodshed either a coalition of the various progressive forces or some type of military dictatorship will emerge.
It remains to be seen whether the progressive elements, both religious and nonreligious, have learned the necessary lessons from the tragic consequences of their past factionalism to form a united front in pursuit of an open socio-political order. Otherwise, Iran will continue to be ruled by despots.
In the meantime, the Iranian people are witnessing the painful truth that a grandfatherly mullah on his prayer mat is ruling Iran with much more brutality than the late king of kings ever did on his peacock throne.