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Mullahs of Iran Vie for Power

June 21, 1987|G.H. Jansen | G.H. Jansen, author of "Militant Islam" (Harper & Row) has written about the Middle East for many years

NICOSIA, CYPRUS — Under increasing pressure at home and abroad from a large variety of opponents, Iran's ruling clique--the singularly non-other-worldly mullahs--are engaged in fierce struggles for power.

The chief protagonists are the Speaker of the Majlis, or Parliament, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the president of Iran, Ali Khamenei. There is no clear dividing line of policy or ideology between these two men, or between any of the contestants, because a mullah who is "moderate" on the Gulf War can be "radical" on economic reform and "extremist" on Islamization. Pure power, and the power of absolute leadership after the passing of the imam, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is what the battle is about.

In a key development this month, Rafsanjani scored heavily against Khamenei when he persuaded Khomeini to order the disbandment of the Islamic Republican Party, which had been led by Khamenei. The IRP, created by the mullahs as their political machine immediately after the Revolution, became omnipresent--through it the mullahs captured the Revolution and ruled Iran for the past 7 1/2 years. That Rafsanjani should take the risk of wiping out the regime's main power base merely to weaken a competitor indicates that the internal struggle is total, no-holds-barred.

Rafsanjani outflanked Khamenei by arguing that the IRP had worked itself out of a job by successfully completing the unification of the revolutionary forces. Though this was obviously not the case, it was difficult for Khamenei not to step into the enticing trap. Underscoring his success, Rafsanjani, with his usual combative arrogance, said just two days later that Iran needed "a strong, indestructible political party."

But he went too far when, at the same time, he tried to get Khomeini to dissolve the 12-member Council of Guardians, a highly conservative group that has vetoed the most important reforms approved by the Majlis under Rafsanjani's sponsorship.

Khamenei has countered by asking Khomeini to change the constitution in order to allow him a third term of office. Khomeini, who likes to keep all the contesting factions in play, is unwilling to tamper with either the Council of Guardians or the constitution.

What is more, the imam seems to be quietly promoting his own choice of successor--his son, Ahmad, who has been steadily accumulated powerful official posts: He now has almost total control of all the media in Iran.

Above all, Ahmad is not only the person closest to his all-powerful father, he is also his doorkeeper, which for millennia has always been the most influential key position in Middle Eastern power structures, whether imperial or revolutionary.

No one can predict the outcome of this leadership struggle, but what is certain is that it is continuous and increasingly bitter, thus making it that much more difficult for the regime to respond to ever more dangerous challenges.

One of these challenges is the steadily increasing military activity inside Iran by the People's Moujahedeen (Holy Warriors), an Islamic group slightly to the left of center. This movement, which was in the forefront of the struggle against the shah, was smashed and driven underground by the Islamic Republican Party. Moujahedeen leader Massoud Rajavi fled to France in 1981.

Last year the French, under pressure from Iran, pushed out Rajavi; he and his followers are now based in Iraq, just across the frontier and thus conveniently located for carrying out attacks inside Iran. There have been 60 of these attacks reported this year, including urban guerrilla actions like bombings and individual assassinations plus, in the countryside, ambushes and increasingly large set-piece clashes with units of the regime's Revolutionary Guards. In the last three months the Moujahedeen claim to have overrun guards' camps and to have captured 50 guardsmen.

On Friday, Rajavi announced the formation of "the National Liberation Army of Iran."

Rafsanjani has been so angered by the Moujahedeen that he has complained publicly to West Germany for allowing the movement to function there. In February he suggested that the Iranian government would end its support for terrorist groups in Lebanon if the U.S. government were to restrain Moujahedeen activities in the states. The Tower Commission report revealed that part of the suggested deal for hostages in the Iran- contra affair was that the United States should denounce the Moujahedeen as "Marxist terrorists." Earlier, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy, in July, 1985, accused the Moujahedeen of engaging in "anti-U.S. and anti-Western terrorism."

But on April 21 of this year, Murphy revealed that U.S. officials had been meeting with the Moujahedeen, which he described as "a player" in Iran today, and that it was "necessary . . . to listen to them."

Better late than never, because the Moujahedeen, a growing threat to the regime from within Iran itself, will be a "player" of increasing significance in the long-drawn-out struggle for freedom in Iran.

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