Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Iran's Islamic leaders awaken to threat from USSR, internal leftists

The Iranian revolution remains the captive of the religious fundamentalists. But they are increasingly jittery about what they see as potential threats to themselves and are dealing with these supposed threats more and more ruthlessly.

Initially, most of these threats to the desired purity of the revolution were identified with sources that might "infect" the revolution with Western ideas or ideology. The supposed "Satan" in the front line has always been the United States, followed closely by Britain.

About these ads

With the last supposed sources of Western contamination within Iran now in the process of being silenced by physical removal, jailing, or intimidation, there is a revived awareness of possible danger from non-Western sources. These are the Soviet Union and the Iranian communists susceptible to Moscow's guidance.

Earlier this month, Ayatollah Khomeini publicly called the Soviet Union a "satanic great power." This was followed by a demand to the Soviet Union from Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh that the USSR close one of its two principal consulates in Iran -- either the one in Rasht or Isfahan -- balancing Iran's closing of its consulate in the Soviet city of Leningrad.

Mr. Ghotbzadeh also asked the Soviet Union to stop its "abnormal activities" in Iran -- widely believed to be a euphemism for Soviet support of Kurdish separatists and Soviet use of the Pro-Moscow Iranian communist party (the Tudeh Party) as a fifth column. Until now, the Tudeh Party has sought to escape fundamentalist or official pressure by tactically supporting Ayatollah Khomeini in almost sycophantic terms.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Aug. 18 that since no response had come from Moscow, the Soviet ambassador in Tehran had been given 24 hours to decide which consulate should be closed.

Many who have been following the course of the revolution in Iran have speculated that a major showdown between the fundamentalists and the extreme left was bound to come sooner or later. Latest developments do not necessarily mean that it is at hand.

But Mr. Ghotbzadeh's challenge to the USSR may well bespeak the concern of relative moderates like himself and President Bani-Sadr lest the ruthless zeal of the fundamentalists leave no middle-ground alternative in revolutionary Iran to clerical fundamentalism on the one extreme and outright Marxism on the other.

If this does, indeed, end up as the stark choice, it will be because of the twists Iran's peculiarities have given to the classical pattern of revolution now being played out there.

About these ads

As in virtually all true revolutions, the seeds for the overturning of the past 18 months in Iran were planted much earlier, during the Shah's reign, by intellectuals. They were (in Iranian terms) secular, and their political coloration ranged from left-of-center to extreme left.

These secular intellectuals found themselves operating within a ruthless authoritarian web spun with remarkable efficiency by a master-spider in the person of the Shah. Within this web, one of their biggest problems was communication.

With other channels closed to them, there remained a nationwide network at least freer of control than any other. That was the one offered by the Shia clergy and their mosques -- already the channel for distributing religious exhortations from the patriarch in exile, Ayatollah Khomeini, across the border in Iraq (and later in France).

Thus began the tactical alliance between the intellectuals and the clergy in planting and tending the seeds of revolution.

What enabled the clergy eventually to take over the revolution?

Basically, the clergy's ability to wean away from the intellectuals the other necessary ingredient in the classical pattern of revolution: the masses.

To understand the relative ease with which the clergy managed this, one must not overlook the significant fact that the adult illiteracy rate in Iran is above 50 percent. This leaves the masses there much more susceptible to the appeal of religious fundamentalists than to the reasoning of secular revolutionary intellectuals -- even those using the cleverly devised slogans of traditional Marxism.

In classical revolutions, the masses do not usually rise until late in the game to give the final heave that finally effects the overturning. This was the pattern followed in Iran.* It was not until the fall of 1978 that the masses finally and irrevocably took to the streets in what was (to an observer on the spot, as this writer was) a truly revolutionary people's uprising.

The Shah left in January 1979. Ayatollah Khomeini returned Feb. 1, 1979. By Feb. 12, 1979, the revolution had triumphed.

Since then, there has been a constant and ruthless power struggle for control of it.

At the very beginning, two significant armed leftist groups claiming a key role in the revolution -- and with some validity -- made a bid for some say in what happened next. Although not large in numbers, they had operated throughout the 1970s at great risk as underground urban guerrillas. Their targets were often US military personnel, deemed symbolic and essential props of the Shah's regime.

One of the groups is the atheistic, Marxist, but not pro-Moscow Fedayeen-e Khalq. The other is the radical Islamic but perhaps Marxist-influenced Mujahideen-e Khalq.

The fundamentalists brought the masses into the streets against both groups. In a tactical move, both have gone virtually underground again -- presumably with their arms.

But it is against the more moderate and mainly secular revolutionaries that the fundamentalists have waged until now their most sustained and open campaign -- partly because the moderates are in some ways the easiest to pick off, one at a time, and partly because (paradoxically) there always seem to be some moderates willing to continue the struggle.

Among these must be numbered Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, elected to the presidency of the republic in February with a surprisingly large popular majority but forced onto the defensive by the fundamentalists ever since.

Mr. Bani-Sadr was eventually maneuvered into a position by the fundamentalists whereby he was obliged to nominate as prime minister a man of their choosing.

The fundamentalists have an apparent lock on the Majlis (parliament) elected earlier this year. But they would have preferred to arrive at this position of superior strength without using the strong-arm weapons at their disposal on the streets or in the market place. These have three main components:

1. The revolutionary committees ("komitehs") at the grass-roots level.

2. The Revolutionary Guards ("pasdarans"), which are vigilante groups not subject to normal Army or police controls.

3. The mob ready to take to the street at a momente's notice under the overall name of "hizbollahi" (Party of God).

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.