President's First Moves Are Cautious


IRANIAN President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will have to walk a fine line in coming months between his own pragmatism and the spirit of Ayatollah Khomeini, Western and Iranian analysts predict. Mr. Rafsanjani must satisfy radicals led by Ahmad Khomeini, heir of his father's xenophobic political credo, and pragmatists led by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who wants the country to break out of its isolation.

This political challenge has led Rafsanjani, analysts say, to take a cautious approach to his first foreign policy test: the handling of the present hostage crisis in Lebanon.

The new President has refused to take decisions alone, according to a well-informed Iranian source contacted in Tehran. He has regularly sought the backing of representatives in the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of government.

Rafansjani appears to be reaching out cautiously to the West at the same time that the relationship between the new leadership and the more radical of Iran's Lebanon proxies is deteriorating. Iranian exiles who follow their country's political life say efforts to prevent Joseph James Cicippio's kidnappers from killing him, and Rafsanjani's offer to cooperate with the United States administration in finding a diplomatic solution to the crisis, are only the latest signs of shifting allegiances.

The first sign appeared in April 1988 when Lebanon's Islamic Jihad hijacked a Kuwaiti airliner, ruining months of Iranian efforts to improve the country's image abroad. (Islamic Jihad is a Shiite extremist group often linked with the Iranian-backed Hizbullah.)

A month later, fighting broke out between the two Lebanese rival Shiite militias, the Syrian-sponsored Amal and the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah. Presidents Ali Khamenei of Iran and Hafez Assad of Syria then negotiated a broad agreement under which both militias would be disbanded and Syrian troops deployed throughout west Beirut.

Part of Hizbullah's leadership has since accused Mr. Khamenei of having ``stabbed them in the back'' when they were on the verge of gaining control over all of west Beirut.

On June 6, 1989, a few hours after the election of Khamenei as Ayatollah Khomeini's successor, Hizbullah ``pledged allegiance to Iran's new leader'' in a rather dry communiqu'e. Amal - whose relations with Iran in the past had been terrible - ``warmly congratulated Khamenei.''

On June 13, the rift between the new Iranian leadership and Hizbullah became public when Sheikh Zouheir Kanj, a leading member of Hizbullah, announced: ``We won't free the hostages even if the US administration releases Iranian assets.'' That contradicted earlier statements by Rafsanjani on conditions for a hostage release.

On July 14, Foreign Minister Velayati invited Hizbullah and Amal leaders to Tehran. Addressing Amal's Nabih Berri, Velayati said, ``We support your fight to reform the Lebanese political system.'' This was the first instance since the 1979 revolution that an Iranian official strayed from the country's policy of outright support to Hizbullah and its goal of Islamic rule in Lebanon.

It's not known to what extent the views on Lebanon of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and Velayati are shared by more radical leaders like caretaker Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi and Minister of Interior Ali Akbar Mohtashemi.

Iranian press editorials on the day following the alleged hanging of US Lt. Col. William Higgins reflected the delicate balance Rafsanjani must maintain. The daily Abrar, a radical publication reflecting Mr. Mohtashemi's viewpoint, approved of the killing. Islamic Republic, containing the views of mainstream Tehran clergy, wrote, ``It's time for Iran to realize the difference between a Lebanese freedom fighter and a Lebanese terrorist.''

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