After more than two years of tempered relaxation in Iran's firebrand ideology, the political climate here has dramatically shifted. In an atmosphere of intense intrigue, militants are now in the ascendancy in determining both domestic and foreign policy. The depth of current divisions among Iran's theocrats is reflected in a story told by diplomats.
Within hours of last month's Mecca riots, but long before news of the 402 deaths was broadcast in Tehran, top Saudi and Kuwaiti diplomats were hastily called to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. The envoys were warned that ``spontaneous'' demonstrations would probably occur at their embassies the next day. With some embarrassment, the Iranian official advised them to stay home.
In effect, the Foreign Ministry was conceding it was impotent to control events or protect the embassies from militants within the government - who did indeed organize a ransacking and burning the next morning.
The nine months since the revelation of the US-Iran arms deals have sparked the most bitter internal wrangling since the early days of the revolution. The next seven months may be even more tense, because of scheduled parliamentary elections.
The reason is that the ruling mullahs generally believe that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's health will not last through the next four-year session. The faction that controls the 270-seat parliament at the time of his death would probably set the tone of the post-Khomeini era, in part because the influence of the deeply divided executive branch is at a new low.
The future is up for grabs, and Iran's politicians are already jockeying for electoral gain. Insecurity and infighting - classic post-revolutionary characteristics - have added sometimes contradictory dimensions to Iran's internal politics.
The issue is not whether the revolution will survive, for it is now well entrenched. At stake are its domestic and foreign agendas and tactics.
At one end of the spectrum are the ``normalizers,'' whose priority is internal reform and gradually normalizing relations with the outside world - if the threat perceived from the outside world diminishes.
At the other end are those who advocate perpetual revolution for Iran's ``oppressed'' and their brethren throughout the 70-nation House of Islam. They are prepared to endure isolation and to promote what others view as terrorist tactics.
The United States has been the primary catalyst for the shift in favor of the hard-liners and will probably be a major influence on election campaign, envoys say. The deployment of US warships in the Gulf could not have come at a worse time for the ``normalizers,'' for it has given militants new justification for their aggressive policies.
Hard-liners are now trying to exploit the moment to institutionalize their influence. An emerging figure is Minister of Interior Ali Akbar Mohtashami, a leading advocate of exporting Iran's revolution. Western intelligence sources claim he had links with groups behind Beirut bombings of Western diplomatic and military facilities.
The interior minister now has control of the komitehs, or neighborhood groups that police moral and political conduct. He has recently begun maneuvering to put his militant loyalists in power in the provinces, reportedly in part to influence selection of candidates for parliament. He replaced the governor in Mashad this summer with one of his own deputies.
The unexpected dissolution of the Islamic Republican Party earlier this year - because political fragmentation threatened a formal split - has left the nomination procedure more susceptible to behind-the-scenes manipulation than ever, analysts say.
Two impending events - the UN vote on sanctions against Iran and this fall's OPEC summit - appear to be temporay restraints influencing the militants. A UN sanctions resolution would make arms harder and more costly to buy. Iran's foreign-exchange reserves are already low. Iran cannot easily afford an OPEC reversal of terms that partially favor its preferences on oil prices and quotas. But the Mecca clash has endangered past implicit Saudi cooperation.
If both meetings enact measures perceived by Iran as threatening, two consequences are likely, analysts say. Domestically, the militants will gain more ground, influencing the elections and the revolution's next phase. Internationally, it may be a long time before Iran shows flexibility in relations with its neighbors or the West.
First of four articles.
Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.