Despite Iran's official contempt for international human-rights organizations , Iranian leaders have realized that it is time to enhance their image abroad, Western observers say.
''Every evening Khomeini listens to the BBC Persian program,'' an exiled Iranian lawyer says, ''he heard about Amnesty International's last report, which gives precise details about human-rights violations in Iranian jails.''
That is believed to have been part of what was behind Ayatollah Khomeini's Dec. 15 decree that reined in revolutionary justice and called for measures to protect individual rights.
''No one should be arrested or detained without a warrant issued by a judge . . . . Private life should be protected . . . . Judges should be obeyed and the assembly should, as soon as possible, pass a new code of Islamic laws,'' Khomeini said.
The last point is considered particularly important. Since the repeal of all non-Islamic laws last year no new code has been written. This confers enormous power on judges and prosecutors. Imam Khomeini's decree may be the last episode of behind-the-scenes debate about the judiciary's respect of human rights.
''The wave of terrorism that followed the dismissal of [Abolhassan] Bani-Sadr in June 1981 forced us to organize the repression which climaxed in March 1982, '' an Iranian diplomat says. ''Then we realized that some of us were going too far, taking advantage of the situation and creating a feeling of insecurity among the people.''
Iranian officials immediately said Khomeini's move was historic.
The Supreme Court chief judge, Ayatollah Moussavi Ardebili, who has been entrusted by Khomeini to enforce his orders, said ''This message comes at an appropriate time, although violations of the law have already decreased by 80 percent.'' This was a recognition of the failures of his own administration.
Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi stressed that ''dissidents are now under the protection of Islam.''
Iran's prosecutor general, Ayatollah Rabbani Amlashi, preferred to resign. New committees have been set up around the country to study the grievances of Iranian citizens against their judges and courts. Their first decision was to fire the revolutionary prosecutors of the cities of Qom and Tabriz. They will be tried in coming weeks. Also fired was a deputy minister for labor who was in charge of purging the civil services.
A few days later, Khomeini announced the disbanding of all the committees that were administering Islamic knowledge tests to people in government offices.
Exiled opposition leaders called the move cosmetic. ''The Shah used the same system,'' says a man, ''he would put several corrupt administration officials in jail for a few weeks, then he would release them.''
''The problem,'' says a lawyer, ''is the system itself. The prosecutors were fired because they are accused of having acted in an anti-Islamic way, not because they were violating basic human rights.''
Opponents also note that at least one point of the decree is ambiguous. ''What I said doesn't apply to those fighting against God,'' writes Khomeini, but he adds that ''even with those people, violation of religious law is not allowed.''
This threatens the implementation of the decree and raises questions about who will be entrusted with the power to decide whether a suspect is a member of an anti-Islamic organization.
The decree doesn't address detention conditions in prisons, which are said to be very bad.
Another problem will be the writing of the new entirely Islamic judicial code. For certain crimes the Koran prescribes corporal punishments, mutilations, and even stoning to death. A vote by the parliament legalizing those practices would give a new impetus to the most narrow-minded religious judges.
Nevertheless, Khomeini's move appear to reinforce those within the regime who were disapproving its constant violation of individual rights. Observers foresee that in the coming months several judiciary officials will be pressed to leave. The next victim could be the revolutionary prosecutor of Teheran, who is responsible for hundreds of executions.
In a move to restore confidence in the Iranian economy, officials also stress the importance of the protection of private property. They are trying to convince Iranians to invest in national industry. Western observers in Teheran see a slow recovery. European and American businessmen are cautiously coming back.
This easing is the result of the apparent political stability achieved by the regime. The People's Mujahideen, who represented the major threat to the Islamic Republic, were dealt severe blows and are less and less active.
Although it hasn't been crushed yet, the Kurdish rebellion is weaker than a year ago. The recent election to the assembly that will pick Khomeini's successor was a success, too. Even some of the traditional religious leaders, who were said to be opposed to the principle of the religious guide for the revolution, finally cast their votes.
In foreign policy, Iran has stuck to its anti-Americanism. Its leaders never miss an occasion to castigate the US role in the Middle East, but they are renewing their relations with the noncommunist industrial countries. After the New Zealand minister of foreign affairs, who came to Teheran in December, the Belgian minister for foreign trade will be the first European Community official to visit Iran since the revolution.
The war with Iraq has reached a new stalemate. Winter floods in the province of Khuzestan make any armored vehicle movement hazardous.
The Iranians are also said to have accepted some kind of a truce while, behind the scenes, the Algerians are frantically trying to find a compromise.