A bitter philosophical row has erupted between two ministries of the Iranian government over the role of the press.
The foreign press corps, trying to report on the turbulent events unfolding here, including the continuing story of the American hostages, is caught in the middle.
On opposite sides in the dispute are Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the foreign minister, and Abol Ghassem Sadegh, director of the foreign press department of the Ministry of National Guidance.
Ghotbzadeh has taken a liberal view of the press' critical attitude toward the government, while Sadegh has taken a position more in keeping with that of the conservative Islamic clergy.
The two differing views reflect the political polarization that has occurred within the revolutionary government between more moderate members, like Ghotbzadeh and President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, and the Islamic Republican Party, led by the Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti.
In the latest move, Sadegh was reported to have resigned late Monday, although he was not available to confirm the report.
The public argument between Ghotbzadeh and Sadegh broke out during the recent international conference on Iranian grievances against the United States, which was billed by the foreign minister as an event of the first magnitude, a forum to present to the world Iran's case against the United States.
But there were few foreign journalists left in the country to report on the meeting and even fewer were issued credentials to cover the conference.
For the dispute over the role of the press has led to a winnowing down of the number of foreign journalists in Iran. Not long ago there were dozens of American reporters here, but now there are only two American staff reporters in Tehran, one each from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
Halfway through the conference, the New York Times correspondent's visa expired and he was forced to leave.
In the past, Iranian officials have complained about what they said was a lack of balanced reporting on the Iranian revolution by foreign journalists. a
When Iranian government officials were submitting reports and documents to the conference to buttress their charges of U.S. intervention, they refused to permit several journalists to cover the conference, including the correspondent of London's Financial Times.
The dispute stems from a deep difference of opinion about the nature of the role of the press in a revolutionary society and how best to present Iran's revolution to the world.
Bani-Sadr and Ghotbzadeh are relatively sophisticated politicans who recognized that in the Western democracies the press plays a role that is by nature frequently critical of the government.
While they would rather have the press be more laudatory than critical, they accept the fact that the Western press is not an arm of the government, as it is in closed societies.
But Islamic conservatives in Iran, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, take a diametrically opposed view of the function of the press. They thank that the domestic news media should be an extension of the government, and in perhaps a deeper sense, an extension of the world of Islam itself.
Thus the mullahs, or clergymen, often view representatives of the foreign press as interlopers, provocateurs and spies who are unable to reflect accurately the nature of an Islamic revolution.
As Khomeini put it recently: "All foreign mass media and some of the local ones are at the service of the superpowers. We cannot project the voice of the oppressed nation. We do not have any means. All the foreign press writes against us. All radio and television broadcasts lie against us." p
The conservative Islamic press here has also accused American reporters of being spies and has criticized Ghotbzadeh for letting foreign journalists into the country.
Visas authorizing entry into Iran are issued by the Foreign Ministry, but, once here, journalists must obtain a press card from the Ministry of National Guidance.
Iranian policy on the admission of foreign journalists has not been consistent. Last summer, American reporters were summarily expelled. But after the U.S. Embassy was seized and hostages take in November, they were allowed back in.
In January, American reporters were again expelled, and then, in March and April, they began trickling back.
In mid-April, the Revolutionary Council agreed that it was against the nation's interest to allow American journalists in. At first, it was decided to expel them outright, but then it was decided to allow American reporters to leave as their visas expired. No new visas were to be issued.
This was a policy recommended by Sadegh, who is an ideological ally of the conservative Islamic political faction here. He was concerned that American reporters were concentrating their coverage on the hostage crisis.
In an interview published recently in Islamic Republic, a newspaper representing the views of the clerically oriented Islamic Republic Party, Sadegh said:
"The hostage issue is for us like one degree in a circle of 360 degrees. But the Americans have shown that in order to safeguard their interests they choose to ignore 359 degrees of the circle and fix their glare on the one degree of the hostages."
In the same interview, Sadegh said that the National Guidance Ministry proposed to expel reporters representing the American, British and West German news media but that the ruling Revolutionary Council agreed only to the expulsion of American journalists.
Even this ruling was ineffective, Sadegh said, as evidenced when he happened to run into Jonathan C. Randal of the Washington Post. Sadegh recounted: "Surprised, I asked: 'What are you doing here? The decision was not to give American reporters visas nor renew their press cards.'
"Randal answered: 'I saw the foreign minister in Beirut and asked him to let me come to Iran, and he agreed.'
"It was difficult for me. I asked myself what the world would think when we legislate a law and than make exceptions to it ourselves. In any case, I told Randal we would not issue a press card for him. He contacted the office of the foreign minister . . . Minutes later, a phone call was made here by the foreign minister, telling us, "You must certainly give him a card.'
"My view is this: When they write at the back of a reporter's card, 'With the permission of the office of the foreign minister,' we have in fact belittled ourselves. Why? Because even if I am the best Iranian reporter, the American Mr. Kissinger would not sign my card and obtain a visa for me."
Previously foreign journalists had found Sadegh an intelligent and helpful official to deal with when the foreign press was welcome in Iran.
It should be noted it is still relatively easy to move around, both in Tehran and in the countryside, except for provinces like Azerbaijan and Baluchistan that are currently off limits to foreign reporters.
There is no military censorship of press dispatches sent out by telex or telephone, as there is in other Middle Eastern countries, including Israel. The respected French newspaper Le Monde noted recently that "freedom for the journalist in Iran -- after a revolution -- is unparalleled in the world."
After Sadegh's criticism appeared in the conservative Islamic press last week, Ghotbzadeh quickly replied in the moderate-leaning newspaper Bamdad.
Ghotbzadeh said the paper that carried Sadegh's interview was one of those journals that "want Iran to be kept in isolation at any price."
Without naming the people responsible, Ghotbzadeh added, "They worked to keep us in isolation. I consider this a plot to which I cannot remain indifferent and I will show logical reaction to it."
As to the restrictions on press credentials for the conference on U.S. intervention, Ghotbzadeh declared:
"I officially told the press responsible for the conference that no one has the right to prevent local and foreign reporters from attending."
The foreign minister said that the withholding of press credentials was "fascist and silly blackmail," and he chided the local Islamic press for not providing great coverage of the conference since it "is one of the greatest events of Iran after the revolution, and all of the world is talking about it, but here it is not that way."