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When going gets tough, Iranian leaders turn to Khomeini. But Ayatollah is eager to see political system work without him

Seven years after leading Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is making an effort to keep a low profile and intervene minimally in day-to-day affairs -- but not always with complete success. ``The problem,'' one Iranian journalist says, ``is that since the revolution, the Imam [Khomeini] has had to intervene at every crucial stage of our political life. Only [recently], he mediated a dispute between President Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi.

``I don't know whether, if he had not been there, they would have been wise enough to work out the compromise by themselves.''

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Ayatollah Khomeini remains the uncontested leader of the country. But he is reportedly eager to see the political system he has set up working on its own and, during rare public appearances, he relentlessly urges his supporters to remain united under the banner of Islam. Last November, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was chosen to succeed Khomeini after his death. But many observers in Tehran doubt Ayatollah Montazeri has the charisma or influence to hold various factions together.

Based on opinions expressed by Iranian officials, as well as recent press reports, Western observers are getting a clearer picture of the political landscape in Iran. They see:

Differences of opinion among top government officials on what the social and economic goals of the Islamic revolution should be and how to achieve them. An apparent easing of restrictions that allows some measure of dissent to be expressed publicly.

Few indications of an active internal resistance movement that poses an imminent threat to the regime, despite claims to the contrary.

The regime's firm grip on the country has forced most of its opponents underground. According to a European ambassador, the number of bombing and assassination attempts against officials carried out by the Paris-based leftist People's Mojahedin Organization has been steadily decreasing. The group claims to have several hundred armed men in the Kurdistan region in northwestern Iran. But Western military attach'es say the rebellion in Kurdish areas has been crushed and the government is firmly in control. Royalists, loyal to the memory of the late Shah and his family, retain support among well-off urban residents and also are said to have connections within the Army.

Three main political groups -- two within the government and one outside -- dominate the Iranian political scene. President Ali Khamenei leads the group of conservative politicians who oppose state intervention in the economy and whose influence has been declining in recent months. President Khamenei's most ardent supporters can be found in city bazaars where merchants oppose any reform that would restrict free trade and among wealthy, land-owning clergymen.

A second political group is headed by Prime Minister Musavi. He believes that the Islamic regime should reform Iranian society in order to reduce social inequities. Musavi heads an almost homogeneous Cabinet in which his only serious rival is Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Vellayati, a close associate of Khamenei.

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Mr. Musavi and his ministers can count on a solid majority in the parliament. But many reformist bills introduced by them have been killed by the conservative Council of Guardians, whose job is to see that all laws are compatible with Islam. Meanwhile, Musavi's backers have gone ahead with reformist projects, setting up cooperative stores and confiscating and reallocating land.

Outside the government, the newly formed Alliance for the Defense of Freedom and Sovereignty of the Iranian Nation is likely to play an increasingly important role. The alliance leader is former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, who has a three-pronged political credo:

Islam should not be imposed by force.

Ending state economic involvement.

Iran should negotiate an immediate end to the war with Iraq.

For this last purpose, Bazargan and his friends have drafted a detailed peace plan which does not call for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to resign -- one of the Iranian regime's major demands for ending the almost-six-year-old war. A source close to Bazargan explains: ``The United Nations Security Council should first condemn Iraq as the aggressor. A UN force would then be deployed on the Iraqi side of the border and a group of international lawyers would estimate the war reparations to be paid to Iran by Iraq and its allies. Eventually [Iran and Iraq] would negotiate a peace treaty.''

Bazargan's relations with the regime have had their ups and downs. Many Islamic fundamentalists view him as a lackey of US imperialism and gatherings of his supporters have often been disrupted by gangs of Islamic zealots. A reliable Iranian source here says that Ayatollah Montazeri has asked the interior minister to allow Bazargan and his supporters to hold gatherings.

``Montazeri understands that if this regime wants to survive in the long run, it has to open,'' a senior official says. Although the May 5 meeting that marked the public launching of the Alliance went smoothly, last Thursday Bazargan and some friends were reportedly attacked by unknown assailants on a Tehran street.

Bazargan and his followers say they want to become the legal opposition, but their attitude toward the Islamic regime is ambiguous. They disapprove of the Islamic Constitution statute which vests the supreme power in the country in the hands of a religious guide. But it is this clause that is seen by many Iranian and foreign observers as the cornerstone of the Islamic system.

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