Iranian authorities have arrested in recent months more than 240 supporters of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, the man selected to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as spiritual leader of Iran. At least nine of those rounded up were executed, Iranian officials confirm. At the same time, there has been a wave of executions of opponents of the Islamic regime, a human rights group has verified.
The crackdown against Ayatollah Montazeri's supporters is apparently a new episode in the factional fighting that has plagued the Iran for years.
``It looks like most Islamic Republic leaders, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have launched a campaign to further clip Montazeri's wings,'' says a European ambassador contacted in Tehran.
Montazeri has run afoul of powerful Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi, and even Ayatollah Khomeini himself in criticizing the restrictions on political expression that have continued even after the Aug. 20 cease-fire in the Gulf war.
``Montazeri keeps on urging Islamic Republic officials to accept the expression in public of a certain level of dissent. But the vast majority of the country's leadership opposes this policy,'' the European ambassador says. Montazeri also favors export of Islamic revolution - a radical goal that pragmatists like Rafsanjani have backed away from.
An Iranian official contacted in Tehran last weekend offers a different explanation for the roundup of Montazeri's associates. According to this official, the clampdown is simply a late follow-up on the arrest in October 1986 of Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of Montazeri's son-in-law.
Mr. Hashemi, an ultra-radical Islamic fundamentalist, was believed to be behind the kidnapping in Lebanon of several Westerners. His arrest and subsequent execution by Iranian authorities were a consequence of his revelation of the arms-for-hostages affair in November 1986. The Iranian official contends that the 240 recently arrested and the nine executed were Hashemi's accomplices and had been involved in terrorist activities.
Iranian exiles in Paris disagree. A former deputy to the Iranian parliament who now lives in exile explains, ``Those arrested recently had no link whatsoever with Hashemi and were part of another group of Montazeri's followers who advocated social and economic reforms in the Iranian society.''
``The government's strategy is two-pronged,'' an Iranian lawyer living in London says. ``On the one hand, ministers pledge allegiance to Montazeri. On the other hand, they work behind the scene to cut Montazeri from his power base - their final aim being to be in a position to manipulate Montazeri when Khomeini dies.''
This new feud takes place amid reports that thousands of opponents to the Islamic system have been shot or hanged since the cease-fire took effect.
On Dec. 13, the international human rights organization Amnesty International said it had received information on more than 300 people reportedly executed since July. This was almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg, Amnesty International said. The true total could run into thousands.
The People's Mojahedin, who form the most important opposition group to Iran's theocratic rule, claim that 12,000 of their supporters were executed in recent months.
``The Mojahedin claim that we executed 12,000 of their jailed supporters,'' an Iranian journalist in Tehran says. ``What we actually did was to kill 12,000 of their men during the July battle. They're trying to convince the world that thousands of their troops missing in combat were actually executed by us. This is ridiculous.''
Amnesty International said the evidence of the execution of hundreds of Iranian dissidents is overwhelming. The sources covered a wide range and their information was crosschecked.