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Still oppressed in Iran

Iran seems to have all but faded from the front pages of the world's newspapers. But its effort this week to oust Israel from the UN General Assembly is a sharp reminder of still another dangerous corner of the Middle East. Ayatollah Khomeini failed in his maneuver at the UN - to the relief of just about everyone. But he cleverly scored a rhetorical point with the world's Muslims, showing that Iran is prepared to take the most radical position with respect to Israel. Clearly, his aim is not to promote peace in the Middle East but to spread the revolutionary flames of Islamic fundamentalism.

What is happening in Iran?

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Nothing that those who welcomed the departure of the Shah and expected a flowering of democracy can be happy about. One dictatorship has supplanted another. If the late monarch's rule was adjudged authoritarian, it cannot be said that Khomeini's theocracy is any less so. On the contrary, most observers today readily concede that the regime differs little from its predecessor in its political repression and resort to violence. Thousands have been executed for political reasons and thousands more jailed in appalling conditions.

Nor, after three years, has the Khomeini leadership improved the lives of most Iranians - something that the Shah at least could lay claim to. Popular discontent grows as economic conditions worsen, as so-called Islamic practices are forced on society, and as the war with Iraq takes a higher and higher toll. One woman expressed the frustration of many when she commented, ''Yes, we are getting an Islamic face. But in the depth of our hearts we now hate that religion that is being imposed on us.''

Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that Islamic rule is under any immediate threat because of such discontent. Indeed, it would appear that Khomeini has a stronger hold today than at any time since the revolution. The regime so far has been successful in putting down opposition. The lower economic classes still seem to give fanatic support to a government which they feel represents their interests. And the middle class does not dare criticize openly.

Where Iran's ideological extremism will lead is impossible to know. The government's failure to cope with growing economic distress or to bring various revolutionary organizations, including the revolutionary guard, under control could ultimately lead to military intervention in politics. Perhaps this is one reason why the ayatollah continues the Iran-Iraq war - it helps mitigate unrest on the home front and keeps the generals in the field. In any case, it does not look as if Iran will soon have a benign government.

Will it ever? The present turmoil may be instructive for those who yearn for a democratic political order. Throughout much Persian history there has been a need to maintain a balance between the secular authority of the rulers and the authority of the religious leaders. The Shah made his biggest mistake in ignoring the mullahs. The result was a religious revolution. Now the mullahs are in power and the pendulum has swung to the other extreme - a theocratic state.

Many Iranians and Iran's jittery neighbors must hope that, down the road somewhere, Iran will again find a middle ground. Until that happens, however, the prospect is for continued repression at home - and revolutionary adventurism abroad.

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