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Bani-Sadr interview: An Ironic Return to Paris, a call to oust Khomeini

Former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, speaking in exile from a comfortable and heavily-guarded villa north of Paris, has broken his last ties with Ayatollah Khomeini and is now calling for the removal of the "despotic" revolutionary leader.

But the ordeal of the split haunts Mr. Bani-Sadr. His fight with Khomeini, who he admits is still the only man able to keep Iran from collapsing into a total civil war, and the two months that the fugitive ex-president spent dodging a nation- wide manhunt have taken their toll. He looks exhausted and emotionally drained.

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Mr. Bani-Sadr spent the length of the interview slumped in an armchair at his new residence in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small and typically French village some 30 miles outside Paris, where the Iranian revolutionary's arrival last Saturday caused quite a stir. Occasionally, he takes a furtive look out into the garden where dozens of French gendarmes and Iranian bodyguards move among the plum trees and hedges.

"You know," said Mr. Bani-Sadr, "after I went into hiding in Iran, [Ayatollah ] Khomeini sent out orders that I was to be found and immediately executed."

Ironically, it was Bani-Sadr who sheltered Ayatollah Khomeini from the Shah's secret police when he first arrived in Paris to lead the Iranian revolution. Later Ayatollah Khomeini's public support for Bani- Sadr, his "spiritual son" assured him a sweeping victory in the first presidential election of Iran's long and violent 2,000-year history.

While fleeing the fundamentalist authorities, Bani-Sadr claims he tried contacting Khomeini through letters and tape recorded messages. He pleaded that Khomeini stop the purges and mass arrests of political opponents.

"But one of the flaws in Khomeini's character -- and the Americans found this flaw early in the hostage crisis and capitalized on it -- is that if you tell him not to do something, he immediately takes it as a sign of your weakness and does the opposite. That's what happened. He intensified the violence, the killings, and exections," the ex-president said.

Mr. Bani-Sadr is growing back the distinctive mustache that he shaved off for his flight into exile last week aboard a military tanker aircraft. He and Massoud Rajavi, the mujahideen guerrilla leader who was the second most hunted man in Iran, staged their getaway in Iranian Air Force uniforms -- not women's clothes, as Tehran authorities claimed.

Then they simply walked on board an airplane at Tehran's largest military base. They waited until late afternoon when the Muslims sentries, fasting for Ramadan fast during daylight hours, were anxiously preparing for their evening meal.

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"The escape wasn't as dangerous as it seems. The opposition can count on at least 90 percent support inside the Iranian Air Force and Army," according to Bani-Sadr.

When Khomeini stripped him of his command of the armed forces, Bani-Sadr said he sent a message to his troops urging them not to rebel against the mullahs. "I asked them not to take any action until the war with Iraq was finished."

"However," he added, "unless Khomeini stops these executions which have provoked a violent counter-reaction by the opposition forces, the Army will be forced to step in."

When Bani-Sadr speaks of "opposition forces" he means the mujahideen organization, whose 70,000 armed and disciplined sympathizers are killing scores of fundamentalist mullahs every day. Their leader, Massoud Rajavi, not only managed to shelter Bani-Sadr for two months (contrary to previous statements, only one month of his hiding was spent in Tehran), but he also organized the escape with the aid of a mujahideen pilot and accompanied Bani-Sadr to Paris.

Together they have formed a "National Council of Resistance," appealing to all Iranian factions who want "independence, freedom, and Islam" to assist in toppling Khomeini's government. So far, according to Bani-Sadr's aides, the Kurdish rebels and other tribes of ethnic minorities opposed to the Tehran regime have also joined the council.

While the ex-president wants to see Khomeini removed from power, for the moment he is not ready to go as far as the mujahideen and to launch an armed uprising against him.

"Iran is already torn between two armed forces -- the opposition and the [ paramilitary] Revolutionary Guards loyal to Khomeini. What I'm trying to do is prevent the violence from escalating. This can only succeed if Khomeini allows political freedom and he must do this quickly.

"If Khomeini were to die tomorrow. Iran would split apart. It would be the next Lebanon."

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