Iran Wrestles With Succession


AYATOLLAH RUHOLLAH KHOMEINI bequeaths to his political heirs a country embroiled in conflict at home and abroad. The United Nations-sponsored peace talks with Iraq are deadlocked. Ayatollah Khomeini's call for the execution of author Salman Rushdie has left Iran almost totally isolated. Khomeini's followers disagree on major issues, such as the handling of Iran's crippled economy and relations between the Islamic Republic and the international community.

Moreover Khomeini, who died Saturday night, left no recognized successor. In March he dismissed Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. The 83-member Assembly of Experts, the group charged with choosing the next leader, yesterday summoned members to ``convene immediately to decide on the issue of leadership.''

Some Western diplomats believe Iran may now face a bloody war of succession. Others believe the revolutionary clergy will make it a point of honor to remain united, at least for the coming months.

``When it comes to the defense of the interests of their caste, the mullahs have often proved capable of overcoming their divergences,'' an Iranian sociologist contacted in Tehran says.

Iran's main opposition group, the Baghdad-based Mujahideen Khalq said Khomeini's death foreshadowed the end of the government he led.

Khomeini's heirs, for their part, voice their confidence that the Islamic Regime set up in 1979 is now strong enough to withstand any challenge from its opponents and will last for ``at least a thousand years.''

Those supporters say that Khomeini held his country together during the hectic years following the Shah's departure, and exerted a deep and lasting influence over Iranian society.

Western diplomats contacted at the weekend in Tehran said they hope that, confronted by this succession problem, Iranian leaders may eventually soften their stance on the international scene and be less prone to export their revolutionary ideals.

Khomeini devoted his entire life to the fight for the establishment of an Islamic rule over Iran. Intransigency, strength of purpose, and ruthlessness were his main traits of character.

``With Ayatollah Khomeini it's always a take it or leave it game,'' an aide once said. ``He doesn't know what compromising means.''

Indeed, for Khomeini, the world was a battlefield on which God, truth, and believers wage an endless fight against Satan, infidels, and falsehood.

This radicalism led him on Nov. 4, 1979, to approve of the seizure of the United States Embassy in Tehran by a group of Iranian students. Khomeini and the students asked for the Shah to be returned to Tehran to face trial. Only the death of the Shah forced the leader to review his conditions for the release of the hostages. The stalemate lasted for 444 days.

When Iraqi troops invaded Iran in September 1980, the Ayatollah announced that the fighting would stop only after the punishment of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He relented only after his troops suffered devastating defeats in the spring of 1988.

Rarely in world history has a leader enjoyed such widespread support among his fellow countrymen: When, in November and December 1978, Khomeini orchestrated from his French residence huge anti-Shah demonstrations in Tehran, he was supported by a vast majority of the Iranian population.

``We were fed up with the Imperial regime,'' a Western-trained lawyer, now in exile in Paris, recollects, ``and we didn't even take the time to read his books on the theocratic rule.''

By that time, the Shah, who was was ill, was weak. Many of his aides were corrupt.

In his recorded messages that were distributed throughout Iran, Khomeini presented himself as the alternative and depicted Western capitalism and democracy as the sources of all evils on earth.

He had realized that many Iranians felt uncomfortable about the rapid Westernization of their country.

When back in Iran, the Ayatollah put his theories into practice and quickly came into conflict with former supporters who disapproved of the idea of having a clergyman at the top of the state.

Thousands of supporters of the imperial regime who had been arrested in the wake of the revolution were later joined in jail by Westernized liberals, Islamic and secular leftist militants, and members of the pro-Moscow Communist Tudeh Party.

Exiled Iranian opponents say between 10,000 and 40,000 people were executed during the 10 years that followed the revolution.

After 10 years of theocratic rule the Iranian society is, at least on the surface, entirely Islamic: Khomeini's refusal of any adjustment of the basic principle of Islam has led him to shape a society in which every aspect of the daily life is ruled by the Koran.

Production and sale of alcohol are prohibited, women have to wear a scarf on their hair when outside their home, school prayers are compulsory as is the fasting during Ramadan.

But patterning a society on a century-old model ran into practical obstacles.

Religious judges, for example, haven't succeeded yet in writing an Islamic law code that would deal with every problem that may arise in a modern society.

Initially, Khomeini drew most of his support from merchants of the traditional Iranian middle class who had been frustrated by the emergence of a new industrial aristocracy under the Imperial regime.

But as the years went by, the coalition of wealthy businessmen and land-owning clerics that sponsored the 1979 revolution was increasingly supplanted by a new generation of lay technocrats seeking the support of the lower classes of the society.

``I hate this regime,'' a Westernized Iranian woman explains, ``but I have to confess that since 1979 I have never been so aware of my cultural identity.''

``I think Khomeini forced me to realize the gap between my civilization and the Western one.''

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