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What makes militant Iranian students tick

Mrs. R, an Iranian Islamic revolutionary mother, has done just about everything for her son: fed him, clothed him, taught him the finest manners, finally sent him off to college and medical school.

What does he do? He goes out and seizes the American Embassy in Tehran.

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"She thinks he's throwing his life away," says a close friend. "She's going up a wall."

He does not seem to agree (although he did make a point of cautioning family friends "not to tell Mom" when he and hundreds of other militants stormed the US mission last November).

Nor would Mrs. R. find many sympathetic listeners among his fellow "Islamic students following the line of the Imam," who, varying in number from several dozen to several hundred, have held the embassy and 50 American hostages ever since.

Nearly all are fervently, indeed ostentatiously, Islamic. Most hail from Iran's lower middle class, fundamentalism's fertile breeding ground. Some, like their Ayatollah, are of rural village stock. At least a few, including a plumpish spokeswoman who honed her English in a Philadelphia suburb and her politics it's-not-clear-where, studied in Europe or the United States.

At least one of the original attackers had contact with urban guerrilla circles while studying in Italy, according to a European journalist who came across him there.

All, as the weeks drag on, are tired. They sometimes argue among themselves. They trust just about no one, except Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Some are just plain kids, with all their combative idealism, their stubborn pride, their moodiness.

This, at least, is the picture that emerges from the militants' friends, from Iranian hostages released early in the embassy ordeal, from Tehran officials who have been dealing with the crisis, and from the scattering of Iranian and foreign visitors to the captive American compound since the seven-month impasse began.

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The militants, meanwhile, go out of their way to project a different picture, fuzzily contradictory pictures, or no picture at all.

"Are you getting tired?" a young computer student from a south Iranian village was asked by telephone. At least some of his fellow captors had admitted exactly that to recent Iranian visitors.

"Tired?" came the reply in stunned, accented English. "No. This [hostage holding] is for us just like praying."

When another student was asked in April whether Mrs. Barbara Timm, the visiting mother of one of the American captives, would be allowed to see her son , the militant was particularly enlightening.

"Have you decided whether to allow the visit?" he was asked.


"When will you decide?"

"We have already decided."

"I thought you said you hadn't decided."

"Don't try to twist my words. I lived in the States. I know you American journalists."

"Well, what is your decision on Mrs. Timm, then?"

"We've said before that only people who we specifically invite will be allowed into the embassy. Now this woman [Mrs. Timm] comes all the way from America, and spends all that money, for nothing."

"So you mean she won't be allowed in?"

"No. I didn't say that."

In the end, she was let in. The decision, Mrs. Timm told reporters, seemed a spur-of-the-moment affair following a tour of the grave sites of Iranian revolutionary "martyrs" and a snack with several of the militants at an American-style fried chicken joint in downtown Tehran.

She duly returned the compliment by publicly apologizing to Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr a few days later for a US attempt to rescue her son and the other captives.

It is easier to explode a bagful of popular misconceptions about the embassy militants, perhaps, than to generalize about a group sometimes as mysterious as its reclusive Imam and as contradictory as Iran's revolution.

Among the oft-repeated half-truths or nontruths appear to be:

* The militants are leftists who take orders from Moscow, or from Palestinian guerrilla chief Yasser Arafat.

There were indeed leftists among the original embassy attackers, but most seem to have been purged on suspicion of designs against Islam. One of the expelled youths grumbled to a friend, "Those guys [still inside] are a bunch of fanatics. They want to start a world war."

They may, indeed, want to do just that. Worse, they may succeed. But there is no indication they needed Moscow or anyone else to tender the suggestion.

At least a few leftist ideologues appear to remain among the militants. Other, more devotedly Islamic, captors sometimes display what one Iranian associate terms "an almost Marxist rigidity."

But this probably should not be taken too literally.

The unifying element of a disparate band of militants is not subservience to Moscow, not an intellectual fondness for Marx or Engels, but a single-minded (sometimes simple-minded) enmity for the United States, coupled with a genuine devotion to Allah, and to a mercurial ayatollah seen as his messenger on earth.

* If the captors are students, so is my great-grandmother.

During the original embassy takeover at least some of the apparent leaders did look a little old for the classroom, according to one of the Iranian hostages released shortly afterward. "One, in particular, was about 32 or 33. He was telling the younger ones how to tie us up and gag us and things like that ," said the released hostage.

But over the weeks it has become clear that most of the captors really are, or recently were, students -- mostly at one of the four major Tehran universities.

Around the turn of the year, more than a few miffed professors discovered some nearly forgotten faces, back temporarily from the "nest of spies" (as the embassy is termed) to catch up on schoolwork. One captor, who had become unofficial physician for the embassy hostages, had briefly gone back to his books to get a medical degree in February.

Most of the captors, friends maintain, are engineering students or recent engineering graduates.

* Every twist and turn in the serpentine embassy crisis had been foreplanned by the sophisticated militant leaders.

Yes and no, but mostly no. A core of about a half-dozen students is, indeed, understood to have mapped out the embassy seizure in advance of the attack. "Yes, we did plan it beforehand," one of the militants acknowledged.

Yet since then, the unfolding of the hostage drama has been just about as improvisational as the revolution of which it has become a central part.

Issues tend to bubble to the decision point from below. Decisions, themselves, are taken by an informal "executive committee" of six to eight of the militants.

Before a decision is formally announced -- traditionally in an official radio "statement of the students following the line of the Imam," duly numbered -- things can get confusing.

Thus on the Mrs. Timm question there was, until the frazzled mother actually entered the captive compound, a whole range of contradictory statements from a whole range of contradictory militants.

"But you're saying the opposite of what another student told me 15 minutes ago," one militant was challenged.


"Well, what should I report as your position?"

"Say we're confused."

"If I do that, the Iranian government will call me tomorrow and accuse me of being an imperialist lackey."

"And they'd be right."

End of conversation.

* No one, even inside Iran, can influence the militants. They are a law unto themselves.

Again, part truth, part fiction. The militants have developed a guarded respect for a handful of Iranian Muslim leaders below Ayatollah Khomeini. Among them are Ayatollah Muhammad Khoeini who was with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris before the fall of the Shah in 1979, Tehran Friday prayers' leader Ayatollah Khamaeni, and Ayatollah Khomeini's son, Sayed Ahmed.

Also exerting at least some influence inside the embassy walls are a Tehran dentist (and militant Muslim) named Habilollah Peyman and Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, the Iranian revolution's controversial "hanging judge" in the months following the ouster of the Shah.

But none of these men can ultimately control the embassy militants. Ayatollah Khalkhali said months ago the captives should be freed ("They are our guests," he explained to the Monitor). The students didn't listen.

One man, however, can tell the militants what to do -- Ayatollah Khomeini.

* The militants, given the right US mediator, are ready to strike an early deal and free the captives.

The notable lack of success by the string of self-styled American go-betweens in recent months should put this theory to rest.

If the captors trust almost no one, they certainly do not trust even "sympathetic" visitors from "the great Satan," as the US is called.

Thus when three American clergymen, who oppose hostage-taking but declared at least some sympathy for the militants' political position, were allowed to conduct Easter services at the embassy, even they were led into the embassy blindfolded.

Besides, the militants ultimately seek redress from the American government. They seem receptive to Americans who share their convictions, or sympathize with them, but only in as much as these visitors may contribute to a locally heralded second American revolution that would force Washington's big-wigs to see the error of their ways.

* The militants are merely terrorists.

No piece of popular American political wisdom more angers Iranian revolutionaries.They have a point. The embassy attack was, and is, a political action. It was mounted by militants who, if nothing else, deeply believe in their campaign to humble a superpower that energetically supported the deposed Shah. They say they are ready to die for that cause, and there is no reason at all to disbelieve this.

The embassy captors also see themselves as the avant-garde of a revolution still in progress, and are determined to use their American hostages as a lever against alleged "reactionaries" within the new regime.

They fume, for instance, at the sight of the country's suave Francophile of a foreign minister, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh. It is no coincidence that the militants have spent nearly as much time culling "evidence" from embassy documents against Iranian politicians, as they have in indicating their US "spies."

* In the end, the militants are just a bunch of kindly kids standing up for what they think is right.

Political causes and kindliness have a way of getting in each other's way.

Convinced they have American "spies" on their hands, the captors were continuing to keep at least some of their captives in isolation even before the muffed US attempt to rescue them.

Whether out of similar conviction or in keeping with an all-embracing preoccupation with "security" -- a preoccupation that has also infected the captors' friends, who defer to their general request for anonymity in the media -- the students were also limiting other hostages to a mere 25 minutes of fresh air a week.

The militants are idealists in the most fundamental sense of that word.

They are, indeed, capable of violence, or of sparking world violence, if only because these things are seen as subservient to their own political priorities, regarding both their own revolution and the United States.

"They are idealists in the sense that they have their own clearly defined idea of the way things should be," says one Iranian politician with at least a hint of awe. "If the world doesn't conform to this idea, then it is the world, not the idea, that must be changed, in their view."

It is true that the students, in effect, backed down from earlier threats to kill their hostages by merely announcing the transfer of some from the embassy -- and renewing calls for a "spy trial" -- after the US rescue mission failed.

But most Iranian analysts and diplomats in Tehran assumed this was on express directives from Ayatollah Khomeini. The Ayatollah, meanwhile, added a disturbing postscript: If President Carter tried any more "stupidities," the Iranian religious leader might not be able to restrain the embassy militants.

From a man with a habit of speaking in nuances and half-tones, the message could well have been taken by the militants as license to carry out their death threat should further US military moves occur.

One Western visitor to the embassy earlier in the year, although avowedly impressed by the "friendliness" of his militant hosts, added:

"I have no doubt after spending a good deal of time with the students that, with a go-ahead from Ayatollah Khomeini, they are ready to kill."

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