A highly placed government official contacted in Tehran acknowledges the Iranian regime is going through a major domestic political crisis. Western diplomats there also confirm this view. The issues dividing ruling factions, the official says, include relations with the United States, the management of the economy, and the problems caused by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's eventual succession.
Ayatollah Khomeini's departure from the political scene, Western diplomats in Tehran say, could trigger a violent confrontation between his political heirs and their factions.
The current surge in tension is taking place against the background of Iran's worsening financial situation, according to Iranian visitors interviewed in Europe. Inflation is raging, these sources say, making it almost impossible for average Iranian families to make both ends meet. And discontent with the government is sharply on the rise, especially in urban areas, they add.
There are apparently two main groups involved in the present dispute, according to sources:
One group is eager for Iran to break out of its political isolation and resume relations with the US under certain conditions. Iranian President, Ali Khamenei, and his close associate, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, head this faction. Both leaders also oppose state intervention in the economy. The core of their supporters are to be found among the cities' merchants, who oppose reforms that would limit free trade, and among wealthy land-owning clergymen.
The second group clings to radical views on exporting Iran's brand of ``Islamic revolution'' and opposes any contact with the US.
Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi and Khomeini's designated successor, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, head this group. Both leaders also believe that the Islamic regime should introduce economic reforms to reduce social inequities.
Until recently the parliamentary speaker, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, acted as mediator betwen the two factions. But Mr. Rafsanjani now appears to be siding with the pragmatists - the faction that favors making contact with the US. Rafsanjani has repeatedly stressed that Iran would resume relations with the US, if the US changed its stance toward the Islamic regime.
Observers say that Khomeini, who until now has always supported the more radical line, has shown some signs of favoring Rafsanjani by not directly criticizing the speaker.
But, said one Montazeri supporter in Tehran, the dispute is far from over. He expressed confidence that Khomeini will eventually come to the rescue of those advocating an uncompromising stance toward the US. Another Iranian source says that Khomeini has reportedly promised to launch a full investigation into reported contacts betwen some Iranian officials and the US administration.
Amid these differences, the continuation of the six-year-old war with Iraq does not appear to be an issue. All Iranian leaders advocated continuing the war until ``the final victory.'' Only Mr. Velayati is said to have privately expressed his reservations about this policy.
Reports from Iran through last weekend told of continuing arrests of the Ayatollah Montazeri's radical supporters. First news of the present conflict came in communiqu'es published by an exile opposition group, the People's Mojahedin of Iran, which appears to retain an efficient intelligence network in Iran.
Western diplomats in Tehran say that, in the context of tension between rival factions, the Revolutionary Guards - a force of several hundred thousand armed irregular soldiers - may play a key role when Khomeini leaves the scene. The Revolutionary Guards minister, these diplomats say, is a moderate; but the Guards commander in chief is a hard-liner. Iranian exiles claim clashes have broken out between rival Guards groups in recent months. But a government official in Tehran vehemently denies this. An overwhelming majority of Guards support Montazeri's uncompromising attitude toward the US and West, this official says.
The regular Army, Western diplomats say, is likely to stay away from any present or future rift between Islamic factions, as it has been weakened by a series of purges since the 1979 revolution.
An Iranian journalist in Tehran says the string of events that recently shook Iran went as follows: Mehdi Hashemi, an associate of Montazeri and the brother of his son-in-law, was arrested in early October, reportedly at the request of Velayati and Rafsajani. This seems to be an attempt to force Shiite Muslim militants in Lebanon to release one or more Western hostages. Mr. Hashemi, who oversaw relations with radical groups abroad, opposed any compromise on the hostages.
The freeing of American David Jacobsen on Nov. 2, amid allegations of a US-Iran deal, triggered a wave of discontent among the radical wing of Iran's ruling elite. Mohammad Khoeinia, a hard-line cleric, called on supporters to demonstrate their opposition to any contact with the US. The demonstration was scheduled to take place Nov. 4 in front of the former US Embassy in Tehran.
Rafsanjani reportedly requested that, after listening to Mr. Khoeinia's speech, the militants come to the parliament, where he delivered his speech on the reported visit by former US National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane. Western observers say Rafsanjani's speech, in which he criticized the US and insisted that no talks had taken place between Iranian and US officials, was an attempt to fend off hard-liners' attacks on his policy of moderation. But one Iranian student who attended the speech, said in a telephone interview, ``Rafsanjani didn't convince us totally.''
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.