Gulf foes: battles at home, too. Iran's leaders - every man for himself

The key to understanding Iran's leadership is to realize that almost all key leaders are ruthlessly pursuing personal power and aggrandizement. Iran is a hierarchical society. Positions of equality are highly unstable, and two individuals finding themselves in equal-status relationships will immediately move to establish their authority over the another.

Ideological positions are coin in this game. Coming out with the most acceptable public pronouncement on an issue is the way to get ahead, particularly if that pronouncement will be praised or sanctioned by the Islamic Republic's ``supreme'' spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The competing men are Ayatollah Khomeini's past religious-school disciples. Moreover, they will always be Khomeini's disciples as long as he lives, no matter how much power they obtain for themselves. They scramble to curry favor with him. Like a wise patriarch, he never lets any one get too far ahead of the others, favoring one today, another tomorrow. Chief among these disciples is Khomeini's chosen successor, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, head of the group of clerics who deliver Friday prayers at mosques throughout the country. Khomeini once referred to him as the ``fruit of my life.'' Ayatollah Montazeri's rival is Hojatolislam (one step below ayatollah) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of Iran's parliament.

Secondary players in the game of influence are Hojatolislam Ali Khamenei, President of the nation; Mir Hossein Musavi, prime minister; Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign minister; Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, head of the Assembly of Experts; Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, head of the Supreme Court; and Hojatolislam Musavi Khoeiniha, prosecutor general.

The spectrum of opinion on the major political issues facing Iran is very wide among its leaders. Ayatollah Montazeri favors export of the revolution, but defends private property; speaker Rafsanjani espouses a pragmatic position on conduct of the war, but favors limited redistribution of land; Prime Minister Musavi favors government control of the economy but has voiced little strong opinion regarding the conduct of the war.

When such religiously based political disputes arise, Shiite Islamic doctrine is not helpful in resolving them. It embodies a philosophy of esotericism that essentially declares that the absolute truth of any religious issue is hidden. The core truth resides with the Mahdi, the ``hidden'' 12th imam (spiritual guide) who disappeared into occultation more than a thousand years ago. The wisest jurisprudent alive stands in the place of the Mahdi to render judgment on controversial issues to the best of his ability. That person is now ``officially'' Khomeini. Since Islam is deemed perfect, there is no contradiction possible on any issue - only lack of knowledge of the truth. When seeming contradictions arise, Khomeini's practice is to wait until the truth emerges over time. As a matter of government, this is an agonizingly slow process. The conflicts within

If Iran does not get some quick answers to the major issues it faces, it may either explode or collapse.

Once the basic conflicts between the principal political players in Iran are understood, the events of the US-Iranian arms operation are easier to comprehend.

The six-year-old Iran-Iraq war is the principal issue involved in the arms transfers. The ``revolutionary'' position on the war, favoring support of Islamic revolution outside of Iran and noncompromise with the United States, is espoused by a group centering on Ayatollah Montazeri with the likely inclusion of Prosecutor Khoeiniha and Prime Minister Musavi.

The ``pragmatic'' position on the war - aimed at securing arms and cash at any price - is espoused by Speaker Rafsanjani, President Khamenei, and Foreign Minister Velayati. In truth, these men are primarily concerned with preserving power: They are afraid that if the war does not end soon, the nation will either go bellyup financially or explode in civil war.

Given the lineup on this issue, the strength lies with the ``pragmatic'' group.

The ``revolutionary'' group is weak primarily because most Iranians regard Montazeri as a lightweight. He is ridiculed openly. Hardly anyone believes that Montazeri will assume the reins of power in the same manner that Khomeini has done. Indeed, Ayatollah Meshkini, whose assembly must approve the successor, has already hinted that no one will be able to replace Khomeini.

But Iranians themselves have sometimes failed to understand that a weak figure with a great deal of power can be a cat's-paw for other ambitious people. Ayatollah Montazeri's extended family is full of such persons. His son, Muhammad, was one of the original zealots of the Islamic revolution abroad. He led the first groups of volunteers to Lebanon from Iran and was killed there in a military accident. Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of Montazeri's son-in-law, was leader of the Office of Liberation Movements, the organization responsible for support of militant groups outside Iran. Montazeri's supporters also included individuals obsessed with public morality - especially the conduct of women in public; public frivolity involving music, dance, and film; and the use of alcohol. They often aggrandized themselves by persecuting others in public.

It is not clear who initiated contacts between the US and Iran. Talks between the two nations have likely been going on at a low level ever since the hostage crisis of 1979-81. It apparently became clear to Iran's war pragmatists that they needed a quick military victory, and they needed arms and cash for it.

This started a round of negotiations not only with the US, but with France, Saudi Arabia, and the Soviet Union, resulting in several billion dollars' worth of arms sales and repayment of Iranian assets frozen since the fall of the Shah. Everything was negotiable in these efforts. The Soviet Union was promised natural gas and better political relations; France and the US were offered the release of hostages in Lebanon; Saudi Arabia was promised help in stabilizing oil prices and curtailment of radical Shiite revolutionary groups in the Gulf states. Ideologues blocked foreign contacts

The obstacle to these operations was the revolutionary ideologues surrounding Musavi, who opposed intervention with Shiite groups holding hostages in Lebanon and fomenting revolution elsewhere. Sources inside Iran report that speaker Rafsanjani came to Khomeini in September arguing that the ideologues were preventing Iran from pursuing the war by effectively blocking the flow of cash and weapons. Moreover, Mehdi Hashemi and others were threatening the secrecy of the operation by distributing clandestine leaflets at Tehran University and announcing US-Iranian contacts.

With the approval of Khomeini, Mehdi Hashemi and several supporters were arrested on charges of murder and treason on Oct. 12. This was nothing less than an attack on Montazeri himself, and it quickly mobilized his supporters. His office leaked the news of US-Iranian contacts to Hassan Sabra, the editor of the Lebanese news weekly Al-Shiraa, the last week in October. Mr. Sabra reported that two Iranian emissaries made a special trip to Lebanon to give him the information, which was published in early November.

Montazeri's actions were immediately known in Iran, and retribution was swift. Since October, more than 200 of Montazeri's associates have been arrested. Montazeri was reportedly fuming. In a private meeting Nov. 11, Iranian sources report that he announced that ``Khomeini would be sorry for these actions.''

Iranian officials moved to solve their public relations problems in a classic fashion: by blaming the US. If the US could be designated as the initiator of contacts with Iranian officials, no taint could accrue to those officials. Rafsanjani, to protect himself and shore up his revolutionary credentials, made his own public disclosures of former US national-security adviser Robert McFarlane's trip as soon as they were published in Beirut, but before accusations could be made publicly in Tehran.

After President Reagan's public admission on Nov. 13 of 18 months of US contact with Iran, President Khamenei insisted in a public speech the next day that no prolonged contact had ever taken place between the US and Iran, although ``they might have held these talks with ... international smugglers.'' Montazeri was clearly down, but not out. Eight of his supporters in parliament immediately petitioned Foreign Minister Velayati calling for details of the event. Former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, head of the Liberation Movement of Iran, a legal opposition group, issued on Nov. 18 an 11-page document condemning the deal.

Khomeini finally moved to limit the damage on Nov. 20 by calling for a halt to criticism of government figures, saying it was not in the national interest. This stopped virtually all official protests, because it implied that Khomeini had approved of all that was happening in advance. Nevertheless, Khamenei, who is clearly implicated, was picketed Dec. 5 when trying to make a speech at the University of Tehran. Montazeri supporters cried, ``Death to compromisers! Death to America!''

Rafsanjani appears to have carried the day, but the struggle is not over. There will be several months of turmoil as the power struggle works its way down. The last time this occurred, at the 1981 ouster of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, political affairs did not settle for nearly six months. [The Associated Press reports the official Iranian news agency said Mr. Hashemi this week confessed to murder, hoarding arms, and collaborating with the Shah's secret police. He was quoted as saying he ``abused the confidence'' of Ayatollah Montazeri.]

Government offices are under extra fortification, as assassination attempts are expected in the next few weeks. Reports of overt congeniality between Rafsanjani and Montazeri are of no value, because bitter enemies in Iran often maintain strictly cordial surface relations with one another.

The eventual prize in this political infighting is control of the Iranian government after Khomeini's death. It is now virtually certain that Montazeri alone cannot fill Khomeini's shoes. Best bets are now that if Khomeini were to die tomorrow, a triumvirate of Montazeri, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei would be chosen to rule. Montazeri would take only a ceremonial role.

The irony in this affair is that US officials are political poison to those in Iran they contact. During the Carter-era hostage negotiations - another period of upheaval in Iran - Iranian officials avoided direct contact with US officials for fear of being toppled from power.

Had National Security Council officials consulted even minimally with the State Department specialists who served during that time, they would have realized it was naive to expect that direct contacts could lead to improved relations with Iran at this sensitive time.

Second of two articles.

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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