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Iran revisited: caviar still, and less anti-US talk

I HAD not set foot in Iran for nearly eight years. Having held a senior government post under the Shah in the late 1970s, I was naturally worried about being detained or at least prevented from leaving the country. As it turned out, I faced no such problems. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised by the pragmatism of the ruling regime in Iran. I had expected a bunch of fanatics running wild in the country. Given the state of war, a nearly 65 percent decline in oil revenues in a year's time, and a general lack of skilled personnel, the situation was not nearly as bad as I had expected. There was a shortage of foodstuffs, and black-market prices were raging, but the allocated ration cards for every item were sufficient. No one was starving. Even the superior Persian caviar was available with ration cards. The rationing of gasoline posed very little if any problem; traffic was as heavy as ever.

I found that Iran is not in a state of crisis, and that repression is not overt. As under the Shah, most Iranians openly criticize and complain about the government, but few actively oppose it. The ruling regime has the support of a small but dedicated portion of the population. The middle classes have come to terms with the government. The mullahs do not trust the middle class, but they need it and thus allow it to criticize the government.

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Every Iranian, whether supporting or opposing the regime, believes that Iran should and will win the war. While the military equation shows a significant superiority of the Iraqi Army in weapons and in the number of men in uniform, I am convinced that Iran will break into the city of Basra in the next few months. Iran certainly has no shortage of soldiers; I witnessed masses of volunteers lining up to go to the front. The pragmatic mullahs also have a system to accommodate those who do not want to fight. Many better-off families that do not wish to have their sons go to war have sought ways of smuggling the boys out of Iran through the rugged mountains. But now for a fee - about equal to what smugglers would charge - the government provides a one-time exit visa. So if a young man does not want to fight, exile is the price that must be paid.

Likewise, the economic situation is under control. The lower oil revenues have touched off a rush toward self-sufficiency and higher non-oil exports. Many advances in small-scale industrial technology have taken place. Industrial production, which dropped off by about 20 percent in 1985 from '84, is holding steady. The black market for the US dollar is about 12 times the official rate. But Iran is the only government in the developing world which officially allows you to buy dollars at the black market rate. Why trust the currency smugglers? The government will give you a banker's draft and pocket part of the windfall.

The Western observer trying to piece together the Iran puzzle must realize that in Iran, labels of fundamentalism, radicalism, and liberalism used by the religious leadership have no meaning. In reality, the mullahs can be one or all, as dictated by the circumstances. Their only real loyalty is to themselves and their newly found power. The mullahs, of course, must not be underestimated. They are not fools trying to destroy the world. They are pragmatists who are prepared to apply the utmost brutality to stamp out opposition. But who is the opposition? Of whom are they afraid? The United States and Western culture? Certainly not! And they have little fear of liberal opposition. Their only real enemies are various factions of leftists and communists, particularly those with Islamic labels such as the Mujahideen-e Khalq. At present they have succeeded in essentially neutralizing the Marxist elements. In short, the mullahs and their associates have no place to run as exiles. They will surely fight to the bitter end to stay in power.

As for the future of relations between Iran and the US, it is clear that neither the Iranian public nor the mullahs really hate America. They all realize that a deal with the US is necessary, but they can't say so publicly. Many senior clerics, in fact, were upset that they were excluded from the visit to Tehran by the US emissary Robert McFarlane. Even the anti-American rhetoric is dying down. Though it is not likely for a few years yet, Iranians realize that Iran and America will establish close ties.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to face a difficult time. But the regime is using organized chaos, energy, and determination to maintain control. I do not see a major change in power in this century.

Fereidun Fesharaki heads the energy program at the East-West Center in Hawaii. He is a former adviser to the prime minister of Iran under the Shah and has just returned from a recent visit.