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Iran struggles under weight of its fundamentalist clergy

By foisting Muhammad Ali Rajai, a hard-line prime minister, onto the Iranian Majlis (parliament), the fundamentalist Islamic clergy has struck a hard blow at President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr's feeble government.

Yet in Iran, not every turbanned mullah (Muslim teacher) is a fundamentalist, and an increasing number within the clergy deplore the stonings, the swift street-corner executions and the hostage-taking that have come to characterize the current Islamic regime.

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Today, a small fundamentalist elite rules Iran. The shadowy clergymen who run the Majlis, control the fanactical Revolutionary Guards and the vigilante courts are all former pupils of Ayatollah Khomeini. The latter made a name for himself by delivering fiercely antigovernment lectures at the Qom Theological Seminary until 1964, when the enraged Shah ran him into exile.

Western diplomats and influential Iranians reached in Tehran by telephone claim that, for now, the hold these exKhomeini students have on the government is ironclad. But some said that because of this clique's revolutionary excesses , it seems likely that their influence will wane whenever the ayatollah is no longer on the scene.

Even some Iranian officials admit that after Ayatollah Khomeini, the country may be plummeted into civil war. The overzealousness of former Khomeini pupils, and their efforts to bar all nonfundamentalists from the government, is party to blame for this prospect.

The roster of Ayatollah Khomeini's Qom students is impressive: Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti the shrewd, hardline leader of the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP); Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Speaker of the Majlis; Sheikh Sadeq Khalkhali, the notorious judge and executioner; Interior Minister Sheikh Muhammad MahdaviKani; at least six members of the officially defunct Revolutionary Council; and even the mullah picked as a possible Khomeini successor, Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, attended the Qom philosophy classes.

Through his fiery lectures at Qom, Ayatollah Khomeini groomed his students for the Shah's overthrow -- and for his dream theocracy. Yet many influential Shiite clergymen -- and, to a lesser extent, the Ayatollah himself -- have become estranged by the fundamentalists' often brutal tactics.

(Tehran obsrvers note that Ayatollah Beheshti seldom is allowed inside the Khomeini household.)

Strictly speaking, Islam has no clerical hierarchy, no titled and turbanned intermediary between man and God. But most Iranians are Shiite Muslims who follow the Koran's advice to "ask the learned when you are ensure" and then follow his words to the letter. Each Iranian chooses a holy man -- and Ayatollah Khomeini is only one of several -- and follows his decrees with a certain oriental emotionalism.

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Often, the West interprets this emotionalism as fanaticism. The militant "student followers in the line of Imam Khomeini" who hold 52 Americans hostage and the "hizbollahi," the zealous street thugs who attack leftists, wielding clubs and long knives, are two frightening extremes to this phenomenon.

In Shiite Islam -- whose influence has spread throughtout Iran, parts of Iraq , and into several Gulf sheikhdoms -- there exists a small council of grand ayatollahs, each with his millions of devote followers. Although Muslims eschew fancy titles, Shiite semanticists have dubbed Ayatollah Khomeini "the Prince of the Grand Ayatollahs." In sheer theological seniority, others on the council outrank Khomeini.

But Khomeini's unquestioned popularity has catapulted him to the head of the six-man Council of the Grand Ayatollahs. Before, an ayatollah's political authority was never the deciding factor for choosing a council leader, and Ayatollah Khomeini was only grudging accepted by the others.

Now, these veteran ayatollahs watch with concern the relative upstarts such as ayatollahs Beheshti and Montazeri assume power in Iran's Islamic government through their militant credentials and not because of their status as respected theologians.

"What matters now," said an Iranian scholar in the United States, "is how hard a particular clergyman defied the Shah. It's a more-revolutionary-than-thou attitude that prevails."

As a result, Ayatollah Khomeini's pupils have formed a sort of shadow council of lesser ayatollahs that threatens to upset the centuries-old Shiite hierarchy. But the feeling is that Ayatollah Khomeini may have planned it that way.

For decades, he has had a running feud with some of the other grand ayatollahs. It stems from the problem that hampers Iran today -- the extent to which the clergy, armed only with the Koran, can handle 20th century Iran.

Ayatollah Shariat-Madari, the grand ayatollah for Iran's 13 million Azerbaijani Turks, opposes basing the Islamic constitution on the Faghi, the title of all-powerful Islamic ruler held by Ayatollah Khomeini, which is central to his notion of a government by theologians.

Commenting on the Shariat-Madari stand, an oriental studies professor in London said: "It isn't personal. Shariat-Madari and a long line of other mullahs simply believe that the clergy should put the Islamic teachings in the hearts of man, not in government."

The purges and brutalities committed by fundamentalists in Khomeini's name also have alarmed the other grand ayatollahs. Ayatollah Khoi, keeper of the holiest Shiite shrine, located in Najaf, Iraq, and the two ayatollahs of Mashhad , Iran -- Ayatollahs Qomi and Shirazi -- have all proclaimed in guarded language that Iran veers in an unIslamic direction.

Last month, followers of the two Mashad ayatollahs scuffled with pro-Khomeini guardsmen and stabbed one to death.

The Mashad demonstrations, and the violence last year in Azerbaijan when pro-Shariat-Madari disciples protested against Khomeini's Islamic Constitution, show the astonishing command that all the grand ayatollahs have -- not just Khomeini.

An Iranian journalist is Tehran said, "All Shariat-Madari has to do is give the word, and 13 million angry Azerbaijanis will descend on Tehran." But the point is, Ayatollah Shariat-Madari probably won't. He and the other ayatollahs are too apolitical to want to risk a holy war against Ayatollah Khomeini.

Instead, however, they might insist that Ayatollah Khomeini castigate his ex-students.

These ayatollahs worry that the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party bends this volatile Shiite emotionalism to its own calculating uses. IRP leader Beheshti has seen fit to manipulate the fanatical US Embassy militants against President Bani-Sadr's secular government, and may keep using the hostage issue in the majlis to push the President even further into a corner.

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