The most striking feature of the troubles still spreading here in Iran is the limp attitude of the government. Despite mounting violence, Prime Minister Jafaar Sharif-Emami, with the apparent support of the shah, has maintained an open throttle for liberalization of the regime.
The permissive policy may in time calm the country. But so far it hasn't, and it is a question how long matters can be allowed to drift before chaos precludes any good way of regaining mastery.
For the past fortnight violence has been increasing in both intensity and extent. In Tehran on Sunday, several thousand students staged the largest demonstration since martial law was proclaimed on Sept. 8. In Jahrom, in the far south, the local police chief was shot by a sniper later identified as a conscript soldier in the Iranian army.
Then there were violent demonstrations and counterdemonstrations in Mashad on the eastern border, and in Gorgan on the Caspian Sea in the north. Hamadan, in the center of the country, witnessed a confrontation between security forces and an angry mob protesting the rape of three girls by the local police.
In dealing with this turbulence, the government tactic has been to let fires burn themselves out. Strikes have been settled by major concessions to workers on wages and fringe beefits. Troops are used as a general deterrent rather than for purposes of engagement. The secret police, or Savak, has just been purged of its leading professionals. Far more prisoners have recently been released from the slammer than put in.
Censorship has been lifted and the newspapers carry full, and some say exaggerated, accounts of the daily violence. Debate in the Majlis, or parliament, is carried on television. Among other things, deputies have recently made a stir by attacking the Savak and demanding the prosecution of the former prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveyda.
Along with this liberal tactic, the government is pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy. Virtually all public figures express disapproval of the demands made by the exiled religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and his radical followers for the establishment of an Islamic republic in place of the monarchy.
At the same time the government has been making behind-the-scenes contacts with the more moderate religious leaders, notably the Ayatollah Sayed-Maderi of Qum. The theory is that when the time is ripe - that is to say, when the troublemakers exhaust themselves - the government will align itself with the moderate clergy and crack down on the radicals.
It is possible, just possible, that that strategy might work. Certainly it ought to be given some time. The best of all possible outcomes would be an easing of the tension, new elections and a more democratic regime - all accomplished without active intervention by the shah.
But the risks of the permissive policy are high. It is not at all clear that the moderate leaders can control their followers. On the contrary, my impression is that the clergy willing to cooperate with the regime cannot because they are constantly running to stay abreast of the demands made by those they are supposedly leading.
Neither is it clear that the security forces can long hang in there without reacting in an indiscriminate fashion. Several incidents, indeed, suggest that both the police and the Savak are deliberately fomenting trouble to sabotage the liberal policy.
Accordingly, many Iranians are looking for ways to take matters in hand soon. They want the shah to step forward, appoint a new and tougher government, and lead the way toward a regime in which the monarchy would be more limited. They want the shah, in other words, to lead Iran to something like a British-style monarchy.
The question is whether the shah will agree to play such a role. At present he is biding his time - some even say sulkiing - and nobody can be sure where Iran is headed.