Free the Tehran 50? It's a Slogan That Could Depend on the Devout and Puzzling Bani-Sadr
Like so many of the men thrust upon the world stage by the Islamic revolution, he is a murky figure, painted as much in shadow as in light. Yet since November, when Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was dismissed as Iran's foreign minister after urging negotiations for the release of the U.S. hostages, Americans have recalled his "moderation" with a kind of desperate nostalgia. Now his intentions may be gauged more precisely. Elected the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in January, Bani-Sadr, 46, last week was placed in command of the country's armed forces as well. For better or worse, the U.S. now finds itself placing most of its hopes for the hostages' freedom on a mercurial self-anointed economist whom one American official described last fall as "something of a lightweight and a kook."
Nowadays U.S. officials are discreetly tight-lipped about Bani-Sadr, but his fervent Muslim faith and his determination to apply the rules of Islam to his country's faltering economy seem unaltered by his accession to power. "The ideas he is espousing as president are those he has formulated during his life. There is nothing new," says Paris economist Paul Vielle, who worked with Bani-Sadr during the Iranian's 16-year exile in France. "He does not compromise; he will be faithful to Islam until his death." The son of an ayatollah, Bani-Sadr hated the Shah's monarchy even in childhood. As a teenager, legend has it, he told his incredulous mother he would lead his country when it was rid of the Shah. In 1963, at the age of 30, Bani-Sadr was wounded during a quickly suppressed insurrection, briefly jailed and then exiled.
By all accounts, he was culturally untouched by his sojourn in Europe. "My uncle lives and breathes his religion," says his nephew Reza, 27. "He has always been a revolutionary, and he would never set foot in a fancy restaurant. When he wasn't doing something to oust the Shah, he read and studied all the time. To him, France was nothing but a library." Bani-Sadr returned to Iran 13 months ago, but his wife, Ozra, and their three children have stayed behind in the Paris suburb of Cachan. The new president lives with his sister and ailing mother in a modestly furnished Tehran apartment. He sleeps on a thin mattress placed on the floor, dutifully prays to Allah five times a day and forgoes neckties as a "symbol of hierarchy."
If the revolution has disrupted his family life, it has not changed in any way Bani-Sadr's devotion to Ayatollah Khomeini. The two men met at the funeral of Bani-Sadr's father in Iraq in 1972; later Abolhassan became a kind of spiritual son to the 79-year-old Khomeini. It seems clear that the Ayatollah has commissioned Bani-Sadr as his successor. Not so clear is whether Bani-Sadr will succeed in bringing the militants at the U.S. embassy under his control. Should he eventually obtain the release of the hostages, his motive will not be generosity, but geopolitics: With the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and his armed forces in disarray, the new commander in chief must play a dangerous game. "He can use the situation in the Persian Gulf area to keep the superpowers at each other's throats while he gets on with business at home," says Vielle. "No one should forget that everything he does is aimed at achieving his goal—complete independence for Iran."
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