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Iran's new power struggle

During the past several months, developments in Iran have seemed to indicate some moderating of both its domestic and foreign policies. The first sign was the Ayatollah Khomeini's eight-point order last winter that stressed the sanctity of all Iranian people and property and that admonished the revolutionary courts and other officials to act within the bounds of Islamic justice. Special committees were formed to ensure that the order was implemented. These measures were followed by a loosening of travel restrictions, and by a call to exiled Iranian doctors, businessmen, and other experts to return home.

In parallel, there has been an upsurge in Iran's economic and trade relations with the West, with reports that Western businessmen are again filling up the Tehran Intercon-tinental Hotel. Some optimists even believe that Iran will be the Middle East's next booming economy.

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Most dramatic, however, was Iran's outlawing of the communist Tudeh party, the arrest of its leaders, the purging of Tudeh sympathizers from military and civilian organs of government, and the expulsion of Soviet diplomats on charges of spying. Not surprisingly, these developments have severely strained Soviet-Iranian relations. While the government's official position is still ''neither East nor West,'' a new slogan appeared during the television trials of Tudeh leaders: ''Britain is bad; America is worse than Britain; and the Soviet Union is worse than both of them.''

Most observers attribute these developments to the growing influence of the Hojatiyeh faction, a right-wing, socially reactionary religious group with close links to the bazaar. It opposes radical social and economic measures, including large-scale land reform and nationalization of foreign trade. Its supreme goal is to eradicate communism and the Bahai faith. According to some observers, the group's influence stems from the fact that its founder, the 84-year-old Sheikh Mahmoud Halaby, was Khomeini's teacher and mentor.

The Hojatiyeh faction also does not favor direct involvement of the clergy in politics and doubts the wisdom of the concept of the Velayat-e-Fagih (the ''custodianship of the supreme religious leader''). This has led to speculation that it might be prepared to create an arrangement with certain secular groups, such as that of ex-Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, in an attempt to remove from power both remaining leftists and left-leaning clerics.

The Hojatiyeh faction has been helped by discovery of the extent of Tudeh infiltration of the bureaucracy and the armed forces - e.g., the commander of the Navy and the special assistant to the Majlis speaker were among those accused of links to Tudeh. Yet it should not be concluded that Iran's power struggle is over or that current trends will continue. Several factors argue against the regime's ability or willingness to accommodate rightist views any further or to form a coalition of secular forces. They also argue for a strong possibility of a leftist resurgence in Iran.

First, the regime still depends on the lower classes for support. This support has already been diminished by the regime's vacillation in implementing radical social and economic reforms and in improving economic conditions for the lower classes, plus its failure to act against the accumulation by many bazaaris of enormous wealth through black marketeering. Further erosion of this support would be intolerable. Nor could the regime expect to compensate for this loss by attracting secular middle-class groups, since that would require compromises of principle beyond the capacity of either side. Indeed, even the modest liberalization measures contained in Khomeini's eight-point order have not been fully implemented. Nor has there been a flood of returning exiles.

Second, since the regime still regards the armed forces as unreliable - not without justification - it needs the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), in which radical elements are still strong, as is the case in nonmilitary organizations such as the Jahad-e-Sazandeghi (Reconstruction Crusade). The regime cannot afford to alienate any of these groups.

Other armed radical groups are also important, such as the Mujahedin-Englab-i-Islami, organized by Behzad Nabavi, who is now minister of heavy industry and who was imprisoned by the Pahlevi regime as a Marxist. His commitment to Islamic principles is at best tenuous, and thus he is a potential contender for power and an ally of radical elements.

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Finally, it is unlikely that the purge of Tudeh's leadership spells the end of its influence in Iran. Two years ago, most Western analysts dismissed Tudeh as a viable force, only to be surprised by the extent of its infiltration of Iranian civilian and military organs. In fact, Tudeh's history shows an incredible capacity for survival and recuperation in the face of adversity. It is doubtful that the recent purges herald its final demise. Tudeh will likely surface again with new leadership not tainted with too-open association with the Soviet Union. Its name might also be changed. Indeed, Tudeh could be revitalized and could emerge even more effective than before.

In all these calculations, the Soviet role must not be underestimated. It would be reckless to assume that Moscow will accept its setbacks in Iran as irreversible. The Soviets will instead use their still considerable potential for influence in Iran - including their ability to manipulate the Kurds and other disgruntled ethnic minorities - to position themselves and their sympathizers to regain lost ground when the right moment comes.

In sum, recent developments in Iran are not the outcome of a power struggle but only the beginning of one that will grow in intensity as Khomeini's departure from the scene and the time of reckoning approaches. The Western world must not read too much into recent events and once again underestimate the leftist and Soviet threat to Iran.

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