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Iran: Enemies of the Clergy

4 minute read

The mullahs confront an emboldened breed of Islamic leftists

In the turmoil of revolutionary Iran, the force that the mullahs fear the most is a tough, aggressive and shrewd group of Islamic urban guerrillas known as the Mujahedine Khalq. Last week the government charged that one of the guerrillas —a 23-year-old science student named Mohammed Reza Kolahi—had rigged the two bombs that exploded on June 28 in the headquarters of the Islamic Republic Party and had then disappeared after the blast.

Iran claimed that 74 victims died, but TIME has learned from sources close to the ruling clerics that as many as 150 people were killed. The authorities acknowledged the deaths of major leaders in the party but did not cite many anonymous powerbrokers and activists who also perished. The result, according to a senior Iranian civil servant, was that “the terrorists effectively beheaded the I.R.P.”

Nobody doubts that the Mujahedin possess the stealth, cunning and means to carry out such a lethal operation. They once put under the brass cover of a rice dish a bomb that killed one of the Shah’s judges as he pondered the fate of some guerrillas. They have other skills as well.

It was the Mujahedin who are believed to have masterminded the escape of former President Abolhassan Banisadr, whom they supported, after he had been deposed by the government. Banisadr is now thought to be hiding in the Kurdish region in northwestern Iran.

In more than a decade of fierce and bloody battles with the Shah’s secret police, the Mujahedin were renowned for fighting to the last bullet and then popping cyanide pills. But since the revolution they have displayed keen instincts for survival. After seizing some 70,000 weapons from armories when the Shah fell from power in 1979, they have bided their time, waiting for the proper moment to challenge the mullahs.

Today the Mujahedin are by far the best organized opposition to Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini. Their leader, Massoud Rajavi, 33, commands a force of guerrillas estimated to be as large as 100,000, with several hundred thousand supporters among the intellectuals, workers, farmers and middle class. Says a Western intelligence analyst: “The Mujahedin have the capacity to make life miserable for the ruling clerics. They are a threat to Khomeini’s people because to the common man both groups seem to be cut from the same cloth—both proclaim they will create a true Islamic state.”

Mostly young and educated, the Mujahedin charge that the ruling clergy’s primitivism and “petit bourgeois understanding of Islam” merely pave the way for a return of Western exploitation in Iran. The guerrillas want to prod the revolution into breaking down class distinctions through a radical redistribution of wealth, collective farming, nationalization of the entire economy and government by decentralized councils.

The Mujahedin hope the clergy’s brutal crackdown will create sympathy for their cause, just as it occurred in the final years of the Shah’s reign. In that sense, the mullahs seem to be playing into their hands. Firing squads-killed more than 50 “counterrevolutionaries” last week; raising to at least 153 the number of people executed since Banisadr was deposed as President on June 22. Jails are so packed that new suspects are no longer detained, just beaten and dumped in alleys. Laments a prominent Tehran lawyer: “Iran has become a horror movie.”

Meanwhile, the government is displaying increasing nervousness. Three correspondents of the worldwide news agency Reuters were expelled and their bureau branded “a center of conspiracy against the Islamic revolution,” leaving the Italian and French as the only major Western news agencies in Iran. The mullahs also remain wary of Banisadr’s lingering influence with the army. Amid rumors of military dismay over the mounting chaos, Khomeini ordered a tough new purge of “deviating elements” among the troops. “Any leniency,” he said, “will be like showing mercy to a sharp-toothed tiger.”

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