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Iran may not have muscle to back Ayatollah's harsh words

Ayatollah Khomeini, it appears, is not looking to negotiate an end to Iran's 43 months of war with Iraq after all. Despite reports that Iran's revolutionary leader might be softening his stance, he dashed any hope of a quick settlement in a tough address Sunday.

''The Iranian Muslim fighters,'' he said, ''will free Iraq from the tyrannies of (President) Saddam Hussein and of the ruling Baath Party.''

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Western diplomats in Tehran, however, wonder whether the Iranian Army has the military muscle to back the Ayatollah's harsh rhetoric. Those diplomats also puzzle over the intentions of Iranian politicians, who alternate between rather moderate and very tough statements.

Last Friday the speaker of the Parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, spoke in surprisingly moderate terms of the explosion that damaged a Saudi supertanker near the Iranian oil terminal on Kharg Island.

''It is highly probable the tanker was hit by a missile,'' the speaker said. ''But the Iraqis won't drag us into a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz.''

In light of the Iranians' repeated threats to block the strategic Gulf waterway after ''any trouble'' in their oil exports, the speaker's statement shows a rather flexible attitude.

Iran's apparently modified policy was made public during Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati's recent visit to Japan. Mr. Velayati assured his counterpart, Shintaro Abe, that ''Iran won't close the strait unless all its oil exports are blocked.''

Other examples of Iran's somewhat ambiguous policy lie in its official list of conditions for ending the war. It includes:

* The evacuation by the Iraqis of all Iranian territories they control.

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* The payment of war indemnities.

* The return to Iraq of Iraqi refugees now in Iran.

* The trial of President Hussein by an international court.

Conspicuous by its absence from this list is any mention of the destruction of Iraq's Baath Party. And ''a trial of President Hussein'' does not imply his condemnation or his demotion, one of Iran's earlier demands.

Officials contacted in Tehran say that ''as long as Imam Khomeini is alive, no reconciliation will be possible between our nation and President Hussein.''

An Islamic militant close to Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi explains that ''about a month ago, Imam Khomeini discussed the war with key political and military leaders of the country.'' According to this militant, Khomeini bluntly said, ''I can't imagine our President, Ali Khamenei, sitting at the same table with Saddam Hussein. This is out of the question.''

Iranians in Europe say that Iranian leaders' hands are tied by their own supporters.

''Even if Imam Khomeini was willing to show some flexibility,'' an Iranian student in Belgium explains, ''he would be disavowed by the tens of thousands of fighters on the battlefield.''

As Khomeini sticks to his position, new fighting is likely.

Western diplomats contacted in Tehran say reports coming from the front are contradictory. Some say up to a million fighters have been massed along the Iran-Iraq border. Others contend there are only half that number. But recent reports suggest both figures might be exaggerated.

Given the present position of the Iranian Army, there is little it can do except advance toward the Iraqi plain, where the bulk of the Iraqi Army is stationed.

''That's why the military hierarchy is thinking twice before issuing the go-ahead,'' says an Iranian student in Paris. And it is this hesitancy that has led exiled dissidents to believe the Ayatollah might be forced to terminate the war.

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the former President living in exile in Paris, says Khomeini has asked former Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi to come up with compromise proposals to end the war. Mr. Yazdi is said to favor negotiations on the basis of the 1975 agreement signed between the Shah and Mr. Hussein, who was then the Iraqi vice-president.

But ''Mr. Bani-Sadr is totally cut off from the Iranian realities,'' an Iranian official said on Sunday.

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