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Iran awaits a showdown -- fundamentalists vs. leftists

After three days of equivocation, the shaken survivors of Iran's fundamentalist clerical leadership are moving cautiously to pin the blame for the massive June 28 bomb explosion in Tehran on the Islamic leftist Mujahideen-e Khalq.

Why the caution?

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There are three likely reasons:

* The fundamentalists may still lack convincing evidence that the Mujahideen were responsible, even if a certain logic suggests they might have been.

* To identify those responsible is tantamount to throwing down the gauntlet for a fight to the finish, and the surviving fundamentalist leadership may not be sure that it can take on such a fight immediately and win it. all the more so, since the upward of 70 fundamentalists killed in the bomb explosion included their most skillful tactician, Ayatollah Muhammad Beheshti.

* An incipient awareness that a growing body of Iranian opinion -- admittedly more intellectually than numerically impressive -- once supportive of the revolution is getting increasingly disillusioned and anticlerical because of the ruthless excesses of the fundamentalists. The Mujahideen -- the strongest of the opposition groups with an estimated 100,000 armed men and women at their disposal -- might become a rallying point for such opinion, now that the fundamentalists have steamrollered aside such revolutionary moderates as former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.

Brown University Iran specialist William Beeman points out that on earlier occasions in this century Iran's shia Muslim clergy started out on the side of reformist intellectual movements against the excesses of secular governments only to end up discrediting themselves with those same intellectuals by their eventual religious excesses.

The clearest indication of a decision to move in against the Mujahideen came July 1 with an announcement by the man chosen to succeed Ayatollah Beheshti as secretary-general of the fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party (IRP), Hojatolislam Muhammad Javad Bahonar.He said 50 members of the Mujahideen were arrested June 30 as they planned to destroy the Parliament in Tehran. (The target of the devastating June 28 bomb attack had been the headquarters of the IRP in the capital.)

But even this apparently sweeping move against the Mujahideen June 30 was in one sense qualified, presumably to make it more acceptable to Iranian opinion as a whole -- in case there were lingering doubts. Hojatolislam Bahonar said he believed all opposition groups in Iran had joined with the US to destroy the Islamic Revolution. The US, of course, has become the perennial "great Satan" in many Iranian eyes, whom it is safe to blame for everything that goes wrong or is wicked. On the morning of the June 28 bombing the US was trotted out as the guilty party.

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The bombing was a doubly cruel blow to the fundamentalists. Not only did it kill some of their best men at the center, but it dashed their hope or rapid establishment of a theocratic state following the ouster of nonfundamentalist President Bani-Sadr only a few days earlier.

Determined to prove they are not powerless, the fundamentalists have revived in some measure the summary executions, such a feature of the early days of the revolution. As many as 80 people have reportedly been executed over the past two weeks. Whether they came under anything more than suspicion has not been proven. More likely, the fundamentalists have struck out almost indiscriminately at each potentially disaffected group to keep it scared into inactivity.

Interestingly, 10 Azerbaijanis were reported executed in Iran's Turkish-speaking center of Tabriz. The Azerbaijanis, potentially more leftist than most other Iranian non-Persian ethnic groups constitute the country's biggest minority. Unlike the other minorities, they share the Shia Muslim religion of the Persians and have a much-respected religious leader of their own , Ayatollah Shariat-Madari. The latter has chosen till now not to rock the boat for the fundamentalists at the center, but the latter may well be wondering whether events of the weekend might not give an opening for trouble from the direction of Azerbaijan.

Who are the Mujahideen, now threatened with the full fury of a fundamentalist counteroffensive?

They are one of two organizations, both Marxist influenced yet not founded initially to do Moscow's bidding. Both operated as urban guerrilla groups against the Shah during the 1970s. Indeed, between them, they bore the brunt of the struggle against the Shah, long before the fundamentalists in any numbers ever climbed aboard the active bandwagon against the crown.Both groups have their main basis on university campuses -- one of the reasons why since the revolution the fundamentalists have kept the campuses closed.

The second of the two groups is the Fedayeen-e Khalq (perhaps 80,000 strong) -- unequivocally Marxist and atheist, in contrast to the Mujahideen's countinuing commitment to Islam. Some of the Mujahideen may be influenced by the philosphy of the late Ali Shariati, an Iranian intellectual educated at the Sorbonne in Paris who passed on in 1977 still only in his 40s. Shariati evolved a revolutionary ideology, Marxist influenced but propounded in terms of Shia Muslim theology. That gave it great appeal to Iranian intellectuals hungary for an indigenous revolutionary teaching as opposed to any foreign imports.

Since the revolution, the Mujahideen seem to have remained better organized and more deeply committed than the Fedayeen.

Both the Mujahideen and the antifundamentalist rump of the Fedayeen (together with less well organized early supporters of the anti-Shah movement) deeply resent the way the fundamentalists came on board the revolutionary bandwagon relatively late, Shanghaied it, and have since ruthlessly driven it exclusively to suit their own clerical and theocratic ends.

The questions for the moment in Iran are:

* Can the fundamentalists hold on to this proletariat support?

* And if they can is it possible for an organization such as the Mujahideen even armed, to meet successfully the fundamentalist challenge without parallel mass support of their own on the streets of Tehran?

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