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War with Iraq: last stand for the mullahs?

Last April, after the abortive attempt to rescue the American hostages, the cry of "God is great" went up from Tehran rooftops in one of the established rituals of the Iranian revolution. For the fiasco in the desert was seen as a clear manifestation of the divine favor bestowed on a people who, with the overthrow of the Shah, had returned to the paths of righteousness. To iranians, it demonstrated the truth of what Ayatollah Khomeini, in his strange, archaic idiom, had told his people a few days before:

"Create great divine power in yourselves. this means that God will strike fear into your enemies, no matter how numerous they are. Thanks be to God, Iran has modern equipment, but, above all, it has the power of faith. Iran should never fear economic boycott or military siege. If the faithful believer kills he goes to paradise, which is better than here, and if he is killed he goes to paradise, which is better than here."

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It is this credo, and the whole revolutionary order it inspires, which now faces its severest test, all in a titanic struggle between good and evil. If, last April, the "militant iranian nation" triumphed over the great Satan, in the shape of the United States, it can hardly afford to be defeated by the mini-Satan which, in the Ayatollah's scheme of things, is the Iraq of President Saddam hussein and his "infidel" Baathists.

Many things have contributed to the institutionalized anarchy that passes for purposeful revolutionary change in Iran today. There are the centrifugal pressures exerted by the minorities, with the Kurds as the most militant of them; there are conventional social and economic divisions; ideological conflict between Western-oriented secular modernists and those who look for regeneration in indigenous Iranian or Islamic traditions.

But perhaps the significant struggle, for the very soul of the revolution, has been waged between the hard-line, backward-looking mullahs of the Islamic Republic Party and those, led by the left-wing Fedayeen-e Khalq, who believe that Islam can and must be adapted to the modern world. It is this struggle that the mullahs, ever since the rise of the Ayatollah, have appeared to be winning. They have seized control of the physical apparatus of the revolution -- the Revolutionary Council, the komitehs, and those instruments of last-resort , mass intimidation, the roaming bands of Hezbollahi (adherents of the "Party of God").

They recently scored another major success with the formation of a cabinet does their bidding rather than that of President Bani-Sadr, an Islamic idologue who is nonetheless fighting a rearguard action, from within the system, for realism, legality, and orderly change.

But the greater their physical control, the faster the mullahs lose popular respect. For they seem congenitally incapable of grasping that, to run a modern techniques. Science as well as faith. And if warfare is the supreme test of a nation's strength, then the war with Iraq may well break the mullahs, their ideology, their legitimacy, their grip on the apparatus. In the Baathists they confront a system which, perhaps rightly, they find as abhorrent as the Shah's.

It is nonetheless a system which, on the battlefield, is proving more effective than theirs. for under the mullahs, the massive military machine which the Shah built has been reduced to a shadow of its former self through purges, desertions, lack of maintenance and spare parts. for more than a year a few thousand Kurdish guerrillas have been keeping at bay an army which once numbered 300,000 men equipped with the most modern weapons Western arsenals had to offer.

It may have come as something of a surprise that the Iranians have put up as much resistance as they have. But, in terms of armaments, organization, and general coherence of purpose, the odds are against them. The Ayatollah cannot go on calling for jihads without furnishing the means of waging them. No doubt the naked aggression which the Baathists have committed will have a galvanizing effect but it is highly dubious whether -- in the Ayatollah's idiom -- it will "create divine power" to prevail against those who have modern weapons but no faith.

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If Iraq presses home its offensive, investing such key towns as Abadan and Khorramshahr, there is little doubt that the growing ranks of Iran's disillusioned will react against the mullahs; they will be held largely responsible for a national humiliation which the Shah, whatever his shortcomings , would never have permitted.

From Paris Sha's widow has called on the "brave officers and soldiers" to fight against both foreign "aggressors" and domestic "usurpers." It was the "incompetence" of the latter which made the aggression possible.

Such appeals will strike a sympathetic chord inside Iran, and not just among those who hanker after a restoration of the Peacock Throne. Doubtless it would be the Army, bearing the brunt of the humiliation, that would spearhead any anti-clerical opposition, perhaps in alliance with a president who has been trying to stem the mullahs' monopolization of power.

But of course opposition to the mullahs ultimately means opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini himself. It is only his unique personal charisma that preserves a semblance of national cohesion. If the Iraqis furnish irrefutable evidence that the Ayatollah is not omnipotent, his fading charisma will not suffice. It is true that there is a heavy streak of masochism in the Ayatollah's brand of Shiite fundamentalism which enables him to tell his people that every new burden is a cause not for dismay, but for celebration. That logic will not suffice much longer either. But before the mullahs go down, they are likely to seek some, more extreme, demagogic means of diverting attention from the evidence of their own failure.

It is easy to guess along what lines they are thinking. It is a standard reflex of theirs to attribute adversities not to their own misrule but to the machinations of the great Satan. The hysteria which a military defeat would unleash might push the mullahs into the kind of expedient that has been inherent in their policies from the outset. This could be some reckless military action. When PResident Carter staged his hostage rescue bid, the Iranians warned, among other things, that they were ready, if necessary, "to set the Gulf ablaze." What they had in mind was not clear -- be it an attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz or an attack on the oil installations of diminutive countries such as Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates which lack Iraq's defensive capability -- but the general purpose would be to punish America and the West in the most drastic way they can.

Or the expedient might be some new, more alarming exploitation of that instrument of blackmail, the American hostages. It is ominous when the Speaker of the National Assembly, Hashemi Rafsanjani, says that "the Iraqi attack is part of a US plot" and that "the Iranian-Iraqi was will not be without effect on the fate of the hostages."

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