Iran's momentous decision to accept UN Security Council Resolution 598 and end the Gulf War appears to set the country on a more moderate and realistic course, with potentially profound consequences both internally and for the region. Few observers doubt that the decision represents a major victory for the pragmatic trend within the revolutionary Islamic regime, and in particular for the man widely regarded as the real architect of Iran's new policies, the increasingly powerful Speaker of the Majlis (parliament), Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The decision to accept Resolution 598, conveyed to the United Nations on July 18, was announced the same day to the Iranian public in a statement from the General Command of the Iranian Armed Forces - headed by Mr. Rafsanjani.
The decision - which surprised the world - clearly settled months of secretive debate within Tehran's ruling circles. As recently as June, one radical, Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, attacked Resolution 598 and argued against a peaceful settlement. ``A war which began with [Iraqi] military action and the occupation of our cities cannot have a political end,'' he said.
Those leaders adopting a radical line toward the war have also generally favored continued efforts to export Iran's Islamic revolution abroad, through sponsoring and activating cells of radical sympathizers. Mr. Mohtashemi himself has been actively involved in overseeing Tehran's relations with fundamentalist groups outside the country.
By the same token, Rafsanjani and his pragmatic supporters have generally argued that involvement in terrorism has cost Iran dearly by alienating potential friends and making unnecessary enemies. The ascendancy of Rafsanjani's line may wellbring further curbs on the export of the revolution and the sponsoring of terrorist actions abroad, but there's no agreement on this point by outside observers, and Khomeini himself seems to vacillate.
A case in point was Iran's reaction to the United States's accidental downing of an Iranian Airbus on July 3, with the loss of all 290 people on board. Another radical figure, Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, called for revenge attacks on US interests around the world. But Rafsanjani argued publicly that ``amateurish actions in one corner of the world or another'' would play into Washington's hands by alienating world sympathy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini intervened and publicly rebuked Mr. Montazeri. There have been no revenge strikes.
There are other reasons why observers expect Iran to move away from terrorism and revolution abroad. The appearance that the war is ending implies a trend toward internal reconstruction and revitalizing the country's shattered economy.
Analysts believe Rafsanjani's emergence as the key power figure in Iran, second only to the supreme authority of the ailing and aging Imam, is attributable to two main factors.
One is his generally recognized astute and adroit political skills, the best among the country's clerical leadership. The other is that Iran's situation favored Rafsanjani's realistic approach. Spurning the UN resolution when it was first adopted in July last year, Tehran declared that it was preparing for a major battlefront offensive.
Months went by. The customary late-winter campaign failed to materialize. Neither sufficient men nor adequate materiel and logistics could be marshaled to score and sustain any meaningful breakthrough. The people were weary of a war which clearly Tehran could not win.
There were other challenges which Iran could not meet. In Gulf waters, US warships inflicted a series of humiliations. In the spring, Tehran itself was battered by devastating and demoralizing Iraqi missile attacks, prompting hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee.
With each new challenge, it was evident that Iran's war policies were as bankrupt as its coffers. Perhaps the last straw came in April, when Iranian forces began to lose to Iraqi counterattacks even those small territorial gains they had managed to achieve in previous years, at enormous cost in casualties.
Although as supreme arbiter, Ayatollah Khomeini had always tried to strike a balance between the competing factions within the regime, he now found himself obliged to tilt increasingly in favor of Rafsanjani and the realists. The signs were clear in early June, when a decree was issued appointing the Majlis speaker acting commander-in-chief of all the country's armed forces, with a mandate to bring those forces - including the sometimes wayward Revolutionary Guards - under the control of a unified central command.
Since then, Iraq has regained virtually all territory occupied by the Iranians. In some cases, Iranian forces withdrew without a fight. While some observers have seen this as a straightforward Iranian military collapse, there has been speculation in Tehran and elsewhere that Rafsanjani may even have engineered the withdrawals in order to facilitate a settlement.
But for Rafsanjani, one imperative became paramount as the expectation began to grow in Tehran that Khomeini's demise might not be far off. Convinced that an end to the war was a national necessity, the moderates realized that it would be virtually impossible for them to pursue negotiations if not blessed by the Imam before his disappearance from the scene. Rivals would have immediately accused them of heresy and betrayal of the Imam's heritage.
The Ayatollah himself revealed in an astonishingly candid address to the nation on July 20 just how bitter a decision it was. He had dedicated his later years to bringing down his hated adversary, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Now, perhaps on his own death-bed, he had been obliged to abandon his insistence on Mr. Hussein's downfall as the price for peace.
``I had promised to fight to the last drop of my blood and to my last breath,'' Khomeini said. ``Taking this decision was more deadly than taking poison.'' Without explaining the underlying reasons, he revealed that he had agreed to the decision on the insistence of the country's political and military leaders - with Rafsanjani no doubt foremost among them.
Even if the Imam were to die tomorrow, the moderates would thus find themselves able to defend the country's new course by citing the Ayatollah's blessing. Although observers do not rule out an attempted backlash by hardliners, Khomeini's reluctant endorsement of the new line will make their task much more difficult. The radical assailants may find themselves accused of deviationist heresy and endangering the Islamic regime.