Rubble of Mideast tension lands in Tehran
Two of the many sources of tension and danger in the Middle East declined over this past week but a third -- political instability in Iran -- was enough to keep attention focused on the area.
The end of the Israeli election campaign itself removed one element of tension. The campaign had been punctuated by unusual Israeli military aggressiveness both in Lebanon and with the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor. The assumption now that the election is over is that Israel will be too busy over the next month forming a new government to undertake any more forward military operations.
The withdrawal of the Phalangist militia units from Zahle in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon appeared to confirm the above assumption. The Phalangists are subsidized by Israel. The spring crisis in and around Zahle began with the deployment of Phalangist units into Zahle and road building operations from Zahle.
The Syrians took that development as threatening to their own positions in the Bekaa Valley and to their line of communications to their troops in the Beirut area. The Syrians retaliated by laying siege to Zahle. Israel answered by shooting down two Syrian helicopters. Syria retaliated by moving surface-to-air missiles into the Bekaa Valley.
On July 1 the Phalangist units in Zahle pulled out. Lebanese troops took their places. The shooting stopped. The situation in the area was again what it had been before the Israeli-supported Phalangists had moved into Zahle.
Since the Israeli elections ended almost in a stalemate between the Likud and the Labor parties, the process of forming a new government will presumably take time. This, and the ending of the military tension between Syria and Israel, may clear the way for the diplomats to move back and try to revive the Camp David process.
Meanwhile Washington must watch with wariness the evolution of events in Iran. There, the Islamic Republican Party of Ayatollah Khomeini is triumphant, having succeeded finally in consolidating all instruments of power in the state into the hands of the mullahs.
But although other political elements have been pushed aside, they have not been appeased. A bomb blat in Tehran tore a great gap in the leadership of the Islamic government. The struggle for power in Iran is not over.
Nor is the danger of big-power involvement.
Both the Soviet Union and the United States whipped out quick charges of blame against the other when the news came in of a bomb blast in Tehran.
In both cases it was prudent propaganda. The stakes are high in this propaganda duel between Moscow and Washington. If responsibility for the bomb could be pinned on Moscow, then Washington would at long last be off the hook of having backed the Shah's regime. The way would be clear for reopening reasonable relations between Washington and Tehran.
From the Moscow point of view the gain would be equally great if the Soviets could actually prove that Americans made and set off that bomb.
Moscow has tried consistently ever since the overthrow of the Shah to pose as a friend of the Islamic revolution. The Soviets have sacrificed to that end their own previously close relations with Iraq, with whom they still have a "friendship" treaty. When the Iraqis asked for more weapons to help in their war against Iran, the Soviets declined. The Soviets instead offered weapons to the Iranians, which the Iranians declined.
Ayatollah Khomeini has kept to the line of independence from both the great powers.
Of course, if Moscow were clever enough to be able to plant the bomb and fix the blame on Washington -- it presumably would do so. But is the KGB that clever? So far we have a bomb that unmistakably did great damage to the Islamic leadership. Yet just before it went off three top members of the leadership, including the prime minister and the speaker of parliament, were summoned from the room where all were meeting.
Was the escape of the three accidental, or part of a plot?
If it were part of the plot, then it would seem likely that the bomb is part of the internal struggle for power inside the revolutionary movement. In that struggle former President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr has lost out and disappeared. but that does not mean that the fundamentalist mullahs yet have things all their own way. The revolution was carried out by a coalition of many factions. None has yet been eliminated from the contest, although for the time being they have been outmaneuvered.
The Shia clergy are now in sole control of the government. They have pushed out the foreign-educated and the modern reformers, the representatives of the Suni minority and, most important of all, probably, the two leftist organizations that had the most to do with the original revolt against the Shah and his regime. These are the Islamic left, called the Mujahideen-e Khalq and the Marxist left called the Fedayeen. Excluded also is the old Tudeh (communist) Party, which remains at Moscow's beck and call, but not in the forefront of action.
The chances are that someone from among one or more of these groups set the bomb as the opening act in the struggle that presumably now opens to break the monopoly on power of the Shia clergy and regain at least a share in government for those who shared in the original revolution.
As far as the West is concerned, the danger now is that the Shia clergy will prove incompetent to govern. If so, the present regime would collapse and the country might fall into even greater chaos. Iran is essentially an empire, not a homogenous state. It is made up of different peoples with different backgrounds and traditions. Fragmentation of Iran is possible.
And, of course, fragmentation would provide both a cha llenge and an opportunity to the men in Moscow.