A year ago, some Iranians were talking of a "second revolution." Discontent was widespread about the direction the country was taking in the aftermath of the February 1979 insurrection that dethroned shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and Iran seemed to be heading for another major upheaval.
Today, Iran's turbulence and power struggles are far from over, and discontent is still rampant. But a mass uprising against the present rule such as the one that toppled the shah seems increasingly unlikely. p
Millions of Iranians, if not a majority, remain loyal to the revolution and appear basically satisfied with the new system. Others express varying degrees of discontent, but most of them seem resigned to the Islamic republic. They also appear willing to work within the system and make the best of it for themselves as so many Iranians did for 37 years under a monarch they grew to detest.
The fact that so many Iranians in one way or another collaborated with the old system -- so thoroughly condemned since -- may explain much of revolutionary Iran's behavior today. A projection of national guilt for this collaboration may be why Iranians so desperately seem to need a scapegoat for their troubles -- past, present and future -- and have singled out the biggest of many foreign collaborators, the United States.
The onus of collaboration may also help to explain why the Moslem clergy, which operated outside the mainstream of imperial life, has acquired such authority in Iran today and why an uncompromising exile such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became so influential in the first place.
Whatever is agitating revolution Iran, many of its problems are of its own making. But mitigating them are factors that often go unremarked outside the country. And, for all its faults, the Khomeini rule has scored some achievements that are recognized and lauded by even its domestic critics.
The country's economy is a mess, with about 30 percent unemployment and about 60 percent of industrial capacity going unused.But Iranians have proved remarkably patient about their economic plight, and the government has shown that it is difficult to sink an oil-based economy in today's market conditions.
The Iranian military is in disarray, leaving the country especially vulnerable to attack by its neighbors and making it difficult to put down resistance to the central government by autonomy-seeking minorities. But this disarray also discourages a military coup against the regime.
Periodic fighting and disturbances by ethnic Iranian Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, Turkomans and Azerbaijanis give Iran the appearance of what some call a "doughnut of crisis." The fighting in Kurdistan especially poses a serious challenge to the government. But the government so far has shown that it can live with these problems. The Kurds are not about to march on Tehran, nor do they seem capable of breaking away from Iran without massive, and unforseen, outside intervention.
The detention of 53 American hostages has acted to isolate Iranian internationally and brought economic sanctions against it.But internally the hostage-taking generally has been a unifying factor and has increased the government's stature in the eyes of Iranians.
In fact, judging by independent observers' trips to the provinces, most Iranians do not seem to be aware of the power struggle taking place in Tehran that encompasses the hostage issue. They believe that the revolutionary leadership is cohesive under Khomeini.
The Islamic republic has uneasy relations with most of its neighbors, especially Iraq. And the Soviet Union looms as an ever present threat on Iran's northern border, having already taken over neighboring Afghanistan. But the average Iranian seems little concerned about Soviet intervention and not much bothered by the plight of the Afghans, who are considered by many Iranians as little better than barbarians anyway.
Given the Soviets' experience in Afghanistan, it seems that the chaos and fanaticism of revolutionary Iran, which has three times the population and is much better armed than Afghanistan, may be its best protection against Soviet Intervention.
Another argument for the continuation of the status quo in Iran is that the Iranians most opposed to the new rule have either been executed, jailed or fled the country. Hundreds of thousands have left, but there is no sign that they or any of the various exile leaders have the wherewithal to overthrow Khomeini despite unsubstantiated claims of followings in Iran.
Internally, it appears unlikely that anything precipitous -- such as a successful coup or a decisive victory by one of the factions currently vying for power -- can happen until Iran's revolutionary leader, Khomeini, dies. Once he does -- and he is 80 years old now -- all bets are off. Indeed, Khomeini's mortality already seems to be having a major impact on current events in Iran.
Basically, political developments in the Islamic republic can be seen as a race by the Shiite Moslem clergy, which Khomeini heads but does not control, to consolidate and institutionalize its authority under his aegis while he is still around. Trying to do the same thing, but not succeeding as well as the clergy, have been President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr and his secular loyalists.
All this does not mean that the Moslem clergy in Iran is a united, monolithic group totally hostile to Bani-Sadr and loyal to the Islamic Republican Party. Some ethusiastically support Bani-Sadr. Others are moderates. And there are those who do not necessarily want to be involved in politics at all.
Thousands, however, have been through the theological school in Qom that Khomeini helped to found, and most are imbued with an idealistic -- some would say fanatical -- Islamic revolutionary fervor that provides for a major clerical role in the country's affairs.
Should Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshi, the leader of the Islamic Republican Party, eventually come out decisively on top of a power struggle, it might be bad news for Iranians still hoping to salvage a democratic government from the country's revolutionary chaos, but perhaps not all that bad for U.S. interests. Beheshti is a pragmatic man who lived in the West and speaks German and English. He could be expected to deal sensibly with the United States if he did not have to worry about being outmaneuvered by more radical elements.
In this sense, a hostile clergy securely in power in a post-Khomeini Iran might be easier for the United States to deal with than a powerless lay figure such as Bani-Sadr who constantly has to worry about protecting his flanks.
"Bani-Sadr may now have lost the initiative in Iranian politics for good," a European diplomat said. "Nobody controls the streets except the mullahs, and not Bani-Sadr. I'm sure Beheshti can use the threat of the hez bollahi [Moslem fundamentalist Khomeini followers] to force Bani-Sadr in any direction he wants."
On the other hand, the clerics of Beheshti's Islamic Republican Party are clearly worried about a military coup in the name of Islam. At present, Iran's political and economic situation does not yet seem to have deteriorated to the point of setting the stage for a successful coup. Furthermore, given that Khomeini retains his ability to order millions of Iranians into the streets -- action that overwhelmed the shah's army -- an attempted coup while he is still alive would probably encounter massive resistance.
The possibility that some military group could organize a takeover of the revolution looms larger after Khomeini is no longer available to repudiate it. Then it could even be done in his name.
Whether the clerics could then prevail would be considerably more doubtful. It was perhaps just such doubts that prompted the clergy to form its own exclusive armed wing, unveiled for the first time last month when thousands of robed and turbaned mullahs shouldering automatic rifles paraded past Khomeini's house in north Tehran.
The sight of mullahs goose-stepping in sneakers -- their traditional slippers were apparently considered impractical for the task -- inspired considerable derision. But an announcement that they had been undergoing military training may mean that armed and organized clergymen are a force to be reckoned with if an attempt is made to oust the clerics from power.
The argument that any forceful challenge to clerical power is more likely to come from a relatively small group than from another mass uprising stems from a perception that most Iranians, being intensely individualistic and often self-centered, can only rarely be motivated to make common cause.
"My impression is that the people have lost faith in universal solutions," said an Asian diplomat with particularly wide contacts among Iranians. "I suspect that like sensible people everywhere, most Iranians will go for their best chance, even while complaining loudly. It's a matter of 'shove--they-neighbor' and try to get as much as you can from the sytem. There's nothing that can really articulate the people again like Khomeini."
For all its difficulties, its power struggles and its turmoil, revolutionary Iran so far has shown a knack for muddling along. In most of the country life goes on pretty much as usual. In Tehran, traffic still jams the streets and the bazaar seems as crowed with shoppers as it ever was.
Furthermore, despite complaints, for many people, the revolution has made important strides overlooked by outsiders.
For example, bazaar merchant Mahmoud Rahimi cites high prices and shortages. He concedes he is now having trouble getting imported goods for his shop, which sells women's makeup, lingerie and sundries. He adds: "Some say we are short of food, but we didn't make the revolution for food. We wanted freedom, and now we have it." He says he goes to all the demonstrations that the government calls, even if he has to close his shop on 15 minutes notice.
Even Iranians who have a great deal to complain about, the poor whose living conditions have not improved and often have worsened since the revolution, seemed to have a long fuse. Parviz Hosseini, for instance, lives in a south Tehran slum of squat, mud-brick houses nicknamed "the Arabs' caves" in a single 8-by-10 foot room with seven other family members.
Although the economy, especially the industrial sector, remains largely stagnant, some progress has been made in reviving agriculture -- a sector long neglected by the shah in favor of impractical, showcase industrialization projects that created more problems that they solved. One result has been more locally grown wheat and steps toward raising meat production.
Among the revolution's other accomplishments in Iranians' eyes has been the holding of six national votes in a little more than a year: a referendum on the monarchy, elections to a constituent assembly, ratification of a new constitution, election of a president and two votes for a new parliament.
Much as it may hurt the rest of the world, the government can also take credit for getting more money fore less crude oil exported. It is also evident that compared to the shah's government, corruption has been sharply curtailed.
For most Iranians, the bottom line is that there is more freedom now than there was under the shah. Although the revolution has been marred by hundreds of executions, arbitrary arrests, confiscations of property and other abuses of liberty, even opponents of the new government concede that the abolition of systematic tortures as a policy of state and a generally less brutal and pervasive political repression mark improvements over the conditions that existed at the height of the shah's power.
Despite the increasingly totalitarian cast of the new Iran, the current variety of periodicals and literature published and political viewpoints expressed would have been unthinkable under the imperial system.
The problem now is where to draw the line between freedom and anarchy. Some Iranians feel the new regime would be more repressive if it were better organized.
"I feel I have more freedom than I used to under the old regime," said a middle-class Iranian banker who was against the shah and now opposes the new government. "I feel free to talk in a taxi and express a political opinion. My concern is that this is going to be taken away. The reason I feel I can say what I want is that the security forces are not strong enough to keep watch on people like they used to. But this is no credit to the government. Everything seems to point to more restrictions."
He also expressed concerns shared by many Iranians of his class: "I have little or no job security. There's absolutely no entertainment of any sort. Nothing on Tv, no cold beer, no walk in the park. There's more crime. I don't feel physical security the way I used to. I can't travel. If I leave the city I'm afraid I'll be held up or get caught in a crossfire."
As in this case, for every accomplishment and improvement made by the revolution, other failures, reservations and steps backward can be cited.
What all of this adds up to and where it will lead are subjects of intense crystal-ball gazing. Many diplomats whose job it is to make just such assessments have become exasperated by the unpredictable, often capricious nature of Khomeini and his quarrelsome revolutionaries.
The consensus is that there is little on Iran's horizon than more of the same creeping chaos, which gives the clergy a chance to make still more inroads at the government's expense. This is a process that could go on for years or be dramatically altered by an assassin's bullet.
"Iran will probably move closer to anarchy, but what may emerge from the situation is hard to say," a European diplomat said. "There are many scenarios. The second revolution may be by the clergy. There may be the complete destruction of Iran. A strongman may emerge from somewhere."
The diplomat paused, then added: "Every Iranian says something will happen, but nobody can say what. As long as that's the case, I don't think anything will happen."