IRAN AND THE CONTRAS. In Iranian politics, labels don't fit easily

When Americans first enter the bazaars of Iran they are charmed and awed by the labyrinthine confusion and by the congeniality of the merchants. After spending a seemingly pleasant time buying trinkets, they may find to their surprise that they are lost, their money has been stolen, and what they thought were gold and turquoise baubles turn out to be brass and blue plastic. Iranian politics are something like Iranian bazaars - pleasant for a time, but dangerous for the naive. White House officials now know what it is like to be snookered by the merchants of Tehran.

The clerical leaders of Iran care very little what the United States or the rest of the world thinks of them. They may be pleasant and sympathetic to outsiders, telling them exactly what they want to hear. But they are concerned first and foremost with solving their own domestic problems and making sure they are not stabbed in the back by their colleagues.

Three raging debates lie at the core of Iran's domestic political life. No one should try to enter Iran's political arena without a full awareness of them. They are:

The conduct of the war with Iraq.

The management of the domestic economy.

The implementation of social and economic reform.

The split over these issues is so complete that it reaches to the core of the nation's leadership. Other issues, such as exporting the revolution, are now far less important than in the early days of the revolution.

The principal leaders' positions vary from issue to issue. And the issues are difficult to resolve since entirely contradictory approaches are fully defensible from the standpoint of Islamic law. Outsiders can recognize opposing poles of opinion. But it is not so easy to discover any political factions espousing consistent philosophies. There are ``revolutionary'' and ``pragmatic'' positions on all three questions, but few identifiable ``revolutionaries'' or ``pragmatists.'' The war with Iraq - if you stop moving you fall off

The war with Iraq is the centerpiece of all political policy in Iran. It sustains the regime and the symbolism of the revolution; but it is also drawing away the lifeblood of the nation.

The war governs all mundane aspects of life. One cannot do anything - marry, open a bank account, or buy milk - without discharge papers showing that eligible males in the family have fought in the war. Avoiding conscription is virtually impossible. The government uses the war as the excuse of first resort for its every shortcoming and the justification for every excess.

No matter what they were told by ``moderates'' in Tehran, White House officials' hopes that Iran's leaders will somehow negotiate a settlement to the war are totally unrealistic. The symbolic power of the Islamic Republic is based on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's basic doctrine of noncompromise with those things deemed evil and corrupt. The revolution ousting the Shah was a studied exercise in noncompromise, as was the US hostage-taking and the ouster of former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. In each case, the clerics gained power and public respect by their hard-line stance.

The nonnegotiable demand in the war with Iraq is the ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Iran will end the war when he is removed from the scene. No amount of cash will substitute for his head, for it is a symbolic demand. Mr. Hussein is a demonic presence in the cosmology of the Islamic Republic, and to allow him to remain would shake its foundations to the core.

Theoretically, time is on Iran's side in the war. Iran has three times the population of Iraq. And it is able to limp along without massive financial help from abroad. In a border war fought in difficult terrain, where heavy military equipment takes a back seat to sheer manpower, the Iranians would simply be able to outlast the Iraqis in the long run.

But the war has gone on too long. Iranian casualties are likely over 250,000 by now; there is not a family in the nation that has not lost a young man. The population is growing weary. There have even been small, public antiwar protests.

There has been serious dissension between the regular Army and two nonprofessional fighting groups over the war's conduct, particularly in the past year. The two groups are the ``Pasdaran'' (Revolutionary Guard) and the ``Basij-e Mostazafin'' (Mobilization of the Deprived).

The regular Army, making up half of the fighting troops, is distrusted by clerics, but they cannot dispense with it. The Pasdaran and the Basij are loyal to the principles of the Islamic Republic, and have been effective in quick-strike offensive operations. They tend to leave holding operations to the regular Army. Lack of coordination between the two groups has been particularly acute in the past year. Last February, Iran had a major victory in capturing the Faw Peninsula from Iraq. In August, it recaptured the city of Mehran. Since then, Iranian military efforts have flagged. Fighting between the Pasdaran and Army broke out in several places in August and September. Each blamed the other for lack of progress during the fall, when Iran hoped to mount a long-vaunted ``final offensive.''

In addition, Iraq has worked ceaselessly to draw the war into the Persian Gulf, where it would have a massive strategic advantage in air power. Iraq has over 500 fighter jets - almost eight times as many as Iran. Iraq's basic strategy has been to bomb Iranian oil facilities in hopes of destroying its sole source of foreign currency.

In the early years of the war, Iraq aimed air strikes at the principal Iranian oil export terminal, Kharg Island. This was not very effective, since Kharg is a gravity-flow terminal, easily repaired even after heavy bombing. Recently, the Iraqis have bombed oil-pumping facilites farther down the Gulf on Lavan, Larak, and Sirri islands. The result has been a drastic decrease in Iran's oil production; it now stands at about 800,000 barrels per day - as opposed to 1.3 to 1.6 million b.p.d last year.

No one in the Iranian leadership favors a negotiated settlement of the war, but there are two distinct positions regarding its conduct. The ``revolutionary'' one views the war as a sacred crusade pitting Iranians against the demons of the world, including Saddam Hussein, the US, and the Soviets. This view favors supporting terrorism and ``Islamic revolution'' everywhere it occurs, and opposes anything seeming to involve compromise.

The ``pragmatic'' position sees Iraq as a military enemy and seeks to end the war expediently, without a Pyrrhic victory. Persons espousing this view are likely to favor any measures to procure a military victory, including dealing with Americans, Israel, and European powers. Iran's economy - guns vs. butter

The war costs Iran about $14 billion per year. Oil revenues, virtually the only source of foreign income, were $14.7 billion last year and are estimated at $6 billion in 1986. With 1985 foreign-currency reserves at $5 billion, it is clear Iran is in serious economic trouble.

All basic goods in the country are severely rationed at official prices - five times the free-market cost. A pound of meat costs about $15. Even so, food subsidies cost the government some $1 million a day. Inflation has been about 20 percent in past years. The government claims it has been reduced, but residents deny any relief. Government workers, pensioners, and the urban poor suffer most, because of their low, fixed incomes.

The population, 48 million, is also increasing at 3.5 percent a year, partly due to incentives given to mothers to bear children ``for the revolution.'' With nearly 50 percent of Iranians living in urban areas, overcrowding is a major problem, as is availability of water and electricity. Thousands of squatters from rural areas have snipped electric wires and water pipes and siphoned them of to illegal housing.

The people providing the greatest support for the Khomeini regime - the urban poor - are losing patience with the revolution, since their lot has hardly improved since the Shah.

On Nov. 9 in a south-Tehran area with irregular water supply, low-income residents protested the lack of drinking water. Government officials were shocked to hear slogans praising the Shah's regime. On Oct. 2, taxi drivers protested gasoline rationing by picketing and burning their cabs on the street.

The ``revolutionary'' position on the economy blames profiteering and free enterprise for Iran's economic woes. Economic reform would consist of nationalizing all industry and food production. The ``pragmatic'' position says Iran suffers from nonintegration with the world economy. This position would maintain the private sector and try to expand international trade. Reform - social justice vs. private property

One of the most important goals of the revolution was to correct the massive social inequities of the Shah's regime. A serious attempt was made to improve conditions for farmers, villagers, and the urban poor. This could not be done without forcible appropriation of the property holdings of the rich.

Such actions created serious political and religious tensions between those advocating social revolution and those espousing Islamic values sanctifying private property.

The problem is exemplified in the difficulties - still unresolved - which arose over land reform. A largely cosmetic land reform had been attempted under the Shah, but absentee landlords were still a dominant force in rural areas. The new land reform was designed to seize any remaining large agricultural holdings and redistribute them to village agriculturalists. The policy began to be applied in April 1980. Over 25,000 land transfer committees established locally began to redistribute land with extraordinary ruthlessness.

Landowners immediately began to organize and to lobby politicians and theologians. Eventually a number of the most senior Islamic jurists (many landholders themselves) began to condemn the law, saying it was anti-Islamic, amounting to an illegal appropriation of private property. By November, controversy was raging throughout the country. In 1981, Khomeini effectively sidestepped responsibility for deciding the matter, leaving it to parliament.

After two years of debate, parliament came up with a conservative law which would not break up landholdings but would, in effect, compel landlords to lease them to villagers.

This bill was vetoed by the Council of Guardians - the special committee of Islamic jurists that decides on the religious suitability of any law passed by the Iranian parliament.

The end result was that only 35,450 acres of agricultural land was actually distributed; rural life was disrupted and agricultural production was seriously impaired. Agriculturists, far from being encouraged to stay on the land, abandoned the villages en masse and moved to the already overcrowded urban areas.

Attempts to nationalize foreign trade, approriate urban landholdings for use by the poor, and establish goverment control over commodities met similar opposition from the Council of Guardians. The problem has not been resolved, and the debate continues.

As can be seen from the debate, the ``revolutionary'' position advocates seizure of private landholdings with reallocation to disadvantaged sectors.

The ``pragmatic'' position would maintain all private landholding provided the owners had obtained their property honestly.

First of two parts. Next: Iran's leaders - every man for himself.

William O. Beeman is associate professor of anthropology at Brown University. He lived and worked for nearly a decade in Iran. He is author of ``Language, Status and Power in Iran'' (Indiana University Press, 1986).

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