IRAN'S new religious guide, Hojatolislam Ali Khamenei, is seen by Western observers in Tehran as a weak political figure. During the Iran-Iraq war, Western intelligence sources in Tehran were convinced that Mr. Khamenei, Iran's President, disapproved of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's intransigent line. But Khamenei apparently never dared voice his opposition.
``He is a devout but unimaginative follower of Khomeini's ideas,'' says a Western diplomat who spent several years in revolutionary Iran.
Khamenei is presently completing his second term as President. First elected in August 1981, Khamenei has never really played a key role in the Islamic Republic's decisionmaking process. He never totally recovered from an assassination attempt in June 1981, and was supposed to retire from political life in October.
On Sunday, Iran's Assembly of Religious Experts chose Khamenei to replace Khomeini, who died Saturday.
The Assembly is an elected body of 83 members who are not necessarily Iran's most senior clergy. Iranian dissidents in Europe and the United States say that the choice of Khamenei, whose rank is lower than that of ayatollah, shows either that senior clergymen weren't offered the job or that they refused it. Though they say they support the Islamic government, the senior clergy are distancing themselves from it, these dissidents say.
Cyrus Reza, the son of the late Shah, explained in an interview with French television: ``Khamenei is a junior cleric. How will he impose his will to a series of Grand Ayatollahs living in the holy city of Qom?''
An Iranian exile contacted in Paris contended that Khamenei won't be capable of assuming the country's leadership and that this power vacuum on top of the state may eventually lead to the crumbling of Iran's present theocratic system.
In recent weeks, Khamenei said time and again he supported the idea of a revision of the Iranian Constitution that would reinforce the power of the executive branch.
Like several other Iranian politicians, including Parliament Speaker Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, Khamenei would like a system in which there would be no prime minister. Cabinet members would be responsible to the president of the republic, not the parliament.
If Khamenei succeeds in pushing through this reform, Iran may in coming months be run by a triumvirate.
The Supreme Guide, Khamenei, would be flanked by a strong President of the Republic, most probably Mr. Rafsanjani, who would also retain his post of Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Guards and the Army.
The third member of the triumvirate would be Rafsanjani's successor as Speaker of the parliament. Under this scheme, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi would retire from active political life.