The release of the US hostages from Iran continues to pose a dire threat to the stability of the Islamic Republic. Paradoxically, the threat comes not from the fact that the hostages have been held too long, causing the Iranian economy to be destroyed. It comes rather from forces opposed to the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini who may charge that his sanction of the hostage release constitutes capitulation, thus proving him unfit to continue to lead the revolution.
Many political analysts within the United States view the periodic demonstrations for and against the present clerical regime in Iran as directly tied to problems in domestic economics. To be sure, the cold of winter has now descended on the Iranian plateau with severe consequences. Kerosene, used almost exclusively for heating and cooking in Teheran and other large urban areas, costs about $6 a liter now, and families are rationed to five liters a week. Food is in short supply and luxuries are not to be found. One Teheran citizen wrote recently to relatives in the US with bitter irony: "We have a wonderful time here now. I get up and stand in line for eggs. My wife and I come home and huddle under blankets until evening when the TV provides us with sermons from the mullahs to listen to until we fall asleep from sheer boredom."
As dismal as this account may sound, Americans should not be misled into thinking that such "stomach issues" are likely to be the spark that could lead to the downfall of Ayatollah Khomeini or his designated successors in the Islamic Republican Party. In a very real sense, the only person who can now bring about the downfall of the Islamic Republic is the man who created it to begin with --his revolutionary posture of resistance and noncompromise with external enemies.
The release of the hostages requires that some official or officials in Iran take the final responsibility of saying: "The conditions have been met. The hostages may now go free." For nearly a year no one could make such a pronouncement because the hostages were not under the direct control of Iranian government officials. Now that they have control, finding the person willing to lay himself on the line to sanction the release is proving to be an impossibility. Like the mouse who would bell the cat, such a person must be presumed dead before undertaking the task.
President Bani-Sadr has openly declared that he will have nothing more to do with the release, to the point that he publicly denied even knowing where the hostages are being kept -- "not because I have no knowledge. . . . but because I have no responsibility in the matter." Parliament speaker Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani keeps reiterating that the US has met the conditions set by that body to avoid having to bring the issue back to a potentially uncontrollable legislative debate. Prime Minister Rajai, the most likely scapegoat in this scenario, has simply refused to act without the direct protection of Ayatollah Khomeini's public approval.
That public approval -- granted by Khomeini on Dec. 16 as a clear concession to the prime minister -- may have been a grave mistake on Khomeini's part. At the very least, it was certainly a risk, for it has given forces opposed to his leadership the opening they need to launch a push to topple him.
Khomeini's power rests on the delicate pyramid of consensus. He is not elected to his leadership post but depends on his ability both to reflect the public will and to serve as an exemplary leader in all aspects of human action -- public and private -- to sustain him. Such a figure must be careful of the direct actions he takes in public, for if they fail he risks a fall for not living up to his own high ideals.
Ayatollah Khomeini's overt support of Iran's answer to the US marked his first public intervention into the hostage release process. Although anticlerical demonstrations and the proclerical counterdemonstrations have been going on in Iran for weeks, Khomeini's act preceded the first demonstrations in which widespread attacks on the Ayatollah himself have been noted. The message is abundantly clear: for some Iranians, Khomeini has already ceased to be the leader of the revolution -- because he is participating in what is being billed as a possible sellout to the US.
Those in the US who look on the possible demise of Khomeini's regime in Iran as potentially advantageous to the US should think twice. President Bani-Sadr, whom Washington has come to respect if not to admire, would have a hard time weathering Khomeini's fall since the Ayatollah has served as his protector so often.
The greatest potential threat to Khomeini comes from the groups who are most antithetical to renewed cooperation between Iran and the US. The first of these are the most rigid of the religious fundamentalists, who believe that Muslims must resist the West at all costs to ensure the resurgence of Islam as a potent economic, spiritual, and political force. The second are militant leftists who have long maintained that Iran will fall under US economic and political domination as soon as the hostages are released owing to the capitalist bazaari support base for the clerical regime.
If these two groups were to unite in opposition to Khomeini, then the political formula which touched off the original revolution against the Shah will have been renewed and the whirlwind of revolution will once again be set in motion. For this reason, Iranian officials must obtain concessions from the US which not only come up to the limits of Washington's ability to act; the concessions must exceed those limits. Only by making the US cry out under the pain of meeting Iranian demands will Iranian leaders gain some measure of security for themselves and their government.