The potential for conflict in the Gulf between Iran and the United States may now depend on an escalating confrontation within Iran. In effect, the country's various military branches are fighting their own battle over dominance of Iran's military and political strategy. The clash pits the deeply politicized Revolutionary Guards against the conventional military - the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The split is just one aspect of this theocracy's divisive power struggle.
The Revolutionary Guards, known locally as the Pasdaran, now have the upper hand, at least for the short term, in conducting both the war in Iraq and the showdown with the US in the strategic Gulf sea lanes.
Some Iranians have recently expressed concern about a ``loose cannon'' from the Pasdaran - either an individual or a group of ideological zealots - deciding unilaterally and despite the central command's wishes to strike at a US target.
The Guards' looser command structure and limited training make them as susceptible to the passionate rhetoric and indirect suggestions of local mullahs (who often have their own agendas) as to orders from officers. The result is a further fueling of their already high anti-American fervor.
More important is their logistical strength. The Pasdaran controls Iran's Silkworm missile sites recently built along the Gulf seaboard. Over the past six months, it has also built up a small navy, which operates in the same waters as the new US naval command. This navy has small vessels and patrol boats, including Swedish speedboats converted for military use.
Several diplomats and Iranians cynically point out the irony of what they suspect to be the truth - that the Revolutionary Guards planted the mines uncovered near Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates that Iran's regular Navy began clearing away last week.
If this is true, the split between the conventional military and the Guards, originally a ragtag paramilitary unit that grew up around various clerics after the 1979 revolution, has reached unprecedented proportions - with dangerous implications for the US.
Unconfirmed diplomatic reports suggest that the tension between the two longstanding rivals erupted in brief firefights last spring along the northwest battlefront when an Iraqi offensive led the Army to surrender a strategic town.
The Pasdaran also has a fledgling air force, mainly helicopters, military sources say. An unconfirmed diplomatic report claims that it has also obtained six MIG warplanes. The unit's growing sophistication is seen in the fact that it now has its own arms production facilities, for which it gets priority on war materiel.
Foreign diplomats here believe that the Iranian government genuinely wants to avoid conflict with the US for a variety of reasons. Diplomats and Iranian analysts also report that the government has tried to rein in the Pasdaran - whose estimated strength of 350,000 now makes it slightly larger than the Army - with a series of tough warnings over the past month.
Last week Kamal Kharazzi, spokesman of the Supreme Defense Council, which runs the war, pledged that ``non-classical, martyrdom-seeking forces'' - a euphemism for the Guards - would not act in a ``disorderly manner.'' But as one envoy commented, ``The big question is whether they will listen to those in power.''
[Yesterday, according to Reuters, some 100 Revolutionary Guards were captured and interrogated in Turkey, in what local newspapers said was an apparent attempt to sabotage an Iraqi oil pipeline where it crosses the border into Turkey.]
The Pasdaran has a long history of militancy and anti-American activities.
Militarily, the Guards have in the past favored mass offensives, with little regard for loss of life. The Army has reportedly been deeply alienated by this penchant for martyrdom and by the loss of Iran's youth.
Politically, the Pasdaran, whose grass-roots members tend to come from rural areas and villages, wants to fight until an Islamic republic can be established in Iraq to replace President Saddam Hussein's regime. But since the war began to turn in Iran's favor in 1982, Army strategists have opposed long-term occupation of Iraqi territory.
The conventional military, led largely by educated men from the cities, remains a sensitive issue for the revolutionaries, because it is one of the most elitist and most conservative bodies in Iran. It was also held responsible for an early, aborted coup attempt against the ruling mullahs in 1980.
Despite major purges after the ouster of the Shah, large numbers of US-trained officers are still in the Army, Navy, and Air Force. On a recent press tour of Iran's minesweeping activities in the Gulf of Oman, journalists heard many naval officers speak warmly of their tours in Norfolk, Va.
The Pasdaran's credentials are thus more attuned to the revolution. This is reflected in their assignments as bodygards for high-level government officials and key clergymen. Its clout is evident in the fact that the ranking Pasdaran official, Mohsen Rafiqdoost, is in the Iranian Cabinet, and that membership of the Supreme Defense Council is weighted in favor of the Guards.
The Guards, referred to here as the ``vanguard of the revolution,'' have also been the key instrument for exporting Iran's militant religious ideology. When Iran intervened in Lebanon after the 1982 Israeli invasion, the task was delegated to the Guards, who were instrumental in establishing militant Shiite groups such as Islamic Amal and Hizbullah (the Party of God).
Intelligence sources have charged that Pasdaran elements, still stationed in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley, played pivotal assistance roles in the suicide bombings at the US and French Embassies and the US Marine compound in 1983 and '84. The Guards are also alleged to have had a hand in the Mecca riots last month between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces, in which more than 400 were killed, and in the subsequent retaliatory raids on the Saudi and Kuwaiti Embassies in Tehran, in which one Saudi diplomat was killed. Diplomats reported seeing well-known Pasdaran leaders directing demonstrators at the two missions.
Perhaps ironically, diplomats and analysts here report recent evidence of clashes within the Guards and among its leadership over tactics. Some are said to believe increasingly that their mass offensives are too hastily prepared and too costly in lives. They are advocating more limited assaults and a diversified strategy, including building up internal opposition within Iraq.
The outcome of this microcosm of Iran's broader power struggle, diplomats and analysts here agree, is certain to play a decisive role in the standoff with the US in coming months.
Second of four articles.
Robin Wright, a former Monitor correspondent, is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.