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Harsh winds in Iran

The West has paid little attention to Iran since the release of the American hostages. But the wounding or killing of scores of Iran's leading politicians and clergymen in a bomb blast brings to the fore again the profound struggle which continues to keep the nation in a state of turmoil. While there may be little understanding of the fundamentalist Islamic revolution gripping Iran, onlookers abroad can only feel compassion for a people subject to such an arbitrary use of violence. The bombing was cruel, senseless and, whatever the motives of its perpetrators, a terrible act of butchery deserving the world's strong condemnation.

There is no doubt this is a serious blow to the Iranian leadership. In effect what might have become the most responsible elements in the leadership have been eliminated. The loss of Supreme Court Chief Justice Muhammad Beheshti will be particularly felt. If many of the leaders in the Islamic Republican Party seem to be wild religious fanatics, Ayatollah Beheshti was regarded as basically a pragmatist and astute political maneuverer who might have been able to restore order out of the present chaos. The question now is who will fill the power vacuum.

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In the past few months, ever since the freeing of the US hostages, the Islamic revolutionaries have sought to consolidate their power, fragmenting both right and left of the political spectrum. Part of this effort was the removal of former President Bani-Sadr, who perhaps struck outsiders as a more Western-oriented and therefore rational figure but who, in the eyes of the militant clerics, arrogated more power than was lawfully his under Iran's Constitution. With Mr. Bani-Sadr out of the way (and currently in hiding) and many of his supporters executed, the hard-line clergy were in a position to govern unopposed.

Contrary to viewing this as necessarily an alarming development, some observers in the West believe it meant the Islamic fundamentalists might finally have had enough power to make the hard decisions needed to restore stability to Iran. To be sure, there is today considerable disenchantment with the clerics, especially among the middle class and the bazaar merchants. But the military, the peasants, and the masses at large appear to be loyal -- a loyalty that Ayatollah Beheshti and others knew how to command. Perhaps other capable political figures will now fill the vacuum left by his death. But the potential danger exists that, if they are not strong enough to govern, the door will be opened to an intensified struggle among the left, the right, the exiles, and other forces contending for power. In the extreme this could lead to civil war and physical breakup of the country.

It hardly needs saying that this would pose an enormous challenge for the West -- as well as an opportunity for the Soviet Union. Much is at stake for United States and other Western interests in the Gulf region. A strong, independent Iran is essential to preserving stability in the Gulf and providing a buffer to Soviet expansionism. A weak Iran with Balkan-like tendencies, on the other hand, gives the Russians fertile soil to exploit.

Once again, therefore, the eyes of the world are on the ancient land of Persia. The nation's travail, heightened by this latest tragedy, evokes sympathy for the Iranian people. It also he ightens concern in diplomatic chancelleries.

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