While Washington weathers the political storm over arms sales to Iran, Tehran is also the scene of a bitter, though behind-the-scenes, controversy over Iranian contacts with American officials. The minority of Iranian political figures who favor such contacts have adopted a low profile. Anti-Americanism is on the rise in Iran. Apparently no one wants to risk being accused of siding with the enemy.
Two recent disclosures seem to have reinforced Iranians' view that the United States is siding with Iraq in its war against Iran. They are:
Published accounts in the US that Washington provided the Iraqi Air Force with satellite pictures of Iranian economic and battlefield targets.
A White House statement released Jan. 23 in which President Reagan said: ``We cannot but condemn Iranian seizure and occupation of Iraqi territory. ...'' Iran has long resented the fact that the US has never condemned Iraq for invading Iran in 1980 and for occupying Iranian territory.
But though Tehran's anti-American lobby remains strong, there are signs that some Iranians feel that improving ties to the US could help Iran - at least in terms of achieving a psychological, if not a military, victory over Iraq.
Among the more visible leaders, parliament speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani is said by European diplomats in Tehran to favor pursuing a dialogue with the US.
Only after a Beirut magazine broke the news about US arms sales to Tehran last November did Mr. Rafsanjani publicly acknowledge that they had taken place. Since then, the diplomats say, Rafsanjani has been on the defensive and has repeatedly tried to clear himself of accusations that he actually negotiated with the US.
Rafsanjani is reportedly aware that members of the Majlis (parliament) are divided on the affair and, Iranian sources say, he therefore strives to play the role of mediator between factions. One Iranian Cabinet member cautions against interpreting Rafsanjani's statements as official policy. ``You Westerners tend to believe that Rafsanjani is the country's strong man,'' he said. ``He is just the speaker of the parliament and whatever he says doesn't bind the Cabinet or the President of the Republic.''
Other officials who formerly rejected contacts with the US have reportedly changed their views, Iranian sources say.
One such official is believed to be Majlis member Muhammad Ali Hodi. Three government sources confirmed that Mr. Hodi met with former US envoy Robert McFarlane in Iran last May. Hodi is an influential theologian and his meeting with the American is significant, observers in Tehran say, because he was earlier regarded as an anti-US hard-liner.
This correspondent interviewed Hodi in 1978, in the early days of the uprising against the Shah. At the time, Hodi was already a staunch supporter of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his anti-American line. Hodi could not be reached on this writer's latest visit to Iran.
An Iranian journalist said that Hodi enjoys the support of several fellow deputies in the 270-member Majlis. ``Hodi is not alone,'' says another Iranian source familiar with the Majlis's workings. ``He represents a political force in the parliament.''
But most rank-and-file Islamic militants still view the US as Iran's arch foe. At the intellectual core of the anti-US movement are many former students who occupied the US Embassy in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981. One of those, Ibrahim Asgarzadeh, is now a senior editor at Kayhan, a major daily.
In an interview, Mr. Asgarzadeh said: ``The Americans are trying to establish contacts with certain political groups within the Islamic Republic. Their aim is to sow division among us. But there are no moderates in this country.''
Asgarzadeh said he believes there is a difference between terrorists and freedom fighters. ``The Islamic Jihad [a group in Lebanon holding Western hostages] has no direct connection with Iran,'' he said. ``But I believe it is the true representative of the Muslim people of Lebanon and we share several of their slogans.''
The secrecy in which most policy debates take place makes it difficult to pin down the position of Iranian leaders. Premier Hossein Musavi, Western observers say, is one of the leaders of the anti-American lobby. But Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati has often indicated support for opening a dialogue with the US.
Ayatollah Khomeini, though strongly anti-US, is reportedly a supporter of Rafsanjani. Some say this is because Khomeini recognizes that Rafsanjani's mediating stance prevents splits in the regime from worsening and leading to a breakup of the government.
A speech made by Khomeini last Nov. 19, two weeks after news of the McFarlane visit broke, was seen by Westerners in Tehran as a shrewd piece of realpolitik. In the words of one Iranian, Khomeini used the speech only to ``order political bickering to stop.'' He did not censure officials who had contacted the Americans.
Mr. van England recently spent several days on assignment in Iran.