Even Iranians glad of war's end wish it had come at a better time. QUITTING WHILE BEHIND

With the exception of religious hard-liners, most Iranians welcome the cease-fire, scheduled to begin Saturday, in the war with Iraq. But even moderates believe the acceptance by their government of UN Security Council Resolution 598 after a series of military defeats was a humiliation for the entire nation.

``So many of our boys have been killed for nothing,'' says a woman who, like many Iranian moderates, wonders why her government didn't accept a cease-fire when the country had the military upper hand.

``When we were in a position of force on the battlefields, our leaders missed several occasions to put an honorable end to the war. For example, in 1982, just after the recapture of most of our cities, the Iraqis begged for peace and their Arab allies told us they were ready to pay war reparations,'' she adds. ``But we turned their offer down.''

This, according to Western diplomats in Tehran, explains why residents of the capital have thus far avoided any public celebrations.

Even the country's officials have refrained from portraying the recent events as successes for Iran.

In a speech on Aug. 1, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who is Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's designated successor, insisted that Iranians should remain united in the coming months but added, ``The time will come for a public investigation into the events that led us to the present painful and bitter situation.''

This apparent frustration leads Tehran-based Western observers to fear that Iran will soon engage in a new arms-buying spree, the country's aim being to eventually reestablish its now-lost hegemony over the Gulf region.

``The Iranians have throughout their history been very nationalist and even imperialist. They've also always shown an extreme strength of purpose in adversity. They will now make a point to rebuild a strong economy and a powerful Army,'' explained a European senior diplomat just back from the region.

All automatic telephone lines to and from the Islamic Republic remain cut. But Iranian travelers arriving in Europe consistently question why their government waited for so long before making the decision to go to the negotiation table.

Hard-line supporters of the Islamic regime contend their country will overcome the present crisis. ``We fought bravely but we were defeated by a coalition made of Iraq and most of the Arab world. The USSR would arm the Iraqis to the teeth while the Americans would deploy their Navy in the Gulf. Our sole mistake was to forget that our prophet Muhammad always maneuvered to confront his enemies one after the other,'' says a devout Iranian Muslim who is a staunch supporter of the Islamic regime.

His comments echo somewhat the words of the commander in chief of Iran's forces, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani.

On the day of the acceptance of the cease-fire, Mr. Rafsanjani said, ``The international community supported Iraq partly because it was frightened by our revolutionary gesticulations.''

Some foreign diplomats read Rafsanjani's statement as a veiled criticism of the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran between November 1979 and January 1981, and of the support provided by part of the Iranian leadership to hostage-takers in Lebanon.

Both ordinary Iranians and foreign diplomats in Tehran agree that Rafsanjani played a pivotal role in convincing Ayatollah Khomeini to accept the cease-fire. A source close to former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan - who has been opposed to the continuation of the war since 1982 - says, ``Rafsanjani is now trying to convince Khomeini to order the release of all Western hostages in Lebanon and restore ties with the US.''

But, the source continues, ``Rafsanjani is walking a tightrope. He is caught between Islamic hard-liners who accuse him of yielding to international pressure and more moderate fellow countrymen who reproach him for not having dared to accept the UN resolution before the string of Iranian military defeats.''

Wealthy and Westernized Iranians fear that a return to peace might trigger a new radicalization of the Islamic regime.

``Most of the fighters were Islamic zealots recruited in the lower classes of the society. When they come home, the regime will try to appease their frustration by tightening the enforcement of Islamic laws throughout the country. The government will also be tempted to carry, at the expense of the middle and upper classes, a series of economic reforms that would improve the situation of the lower classes of the society,'' a professor from Tehran University explains.

But an Iranian businessman disagrees with this view, contending that the Iranian economy is in such a shambles that bringing deep reforms into it would plunge it into chaos and bring about the collapse of the regime.

``Rafsanjani is aware that to rebuild the country he will need the backing of the international community and the full cooperation of Iran's industrialists and merchants,'' the businessman says. ``Negotiations are already underway between various cities' businessmen guilds and the country's leaders.''

Claude van England, who visits Iran regularly, writes from Brussels.

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