TEHRAN, Iran, Sept. 9, 1978 (UPI) - An exclusive group of powerful Moslem high priests has made one thing clear in its critical showdown with Shan Mohammed Reza Pahlevi: Iran must turn to Islam or suffer a bloodbath.
It may already be happening.
Violence which has wracked Iran for the last 10 months has accounted for hundreds, some say thousands, of lives, and when the rioting led inevitably to martial law, the scale of bloodshed rose sharply.
Behind the turmoil there is a complicated skein of motives, both political and religious, alliances and historical forces.
The new dream of Islamic rule is an outgrowth of political demands and now has assumed a dominant force in the form of the 70 clergymen known as ayatollahs who like to equate themselves in influence with cardinals backed by hundreds of thousands of followers.
It was the half century of methodical modernization and, to some extent, westernization undertaken by the shah and his father that gave the Moslem zealots their opening.
Rapid material growth fueled by Iran's $23-billion-a-year oil revenues eroded old traditions and created an ever wider chasm between rich and poor. On top of economic distress was the shah's determination not to let his opponents block his path. The result: charges of political oppression.
The priests led a loose movement of political groups of all shades and leanings. At first their demands were for increased democracy and they forced several major concessions from the shah, including the end of a ban on political activity. As a result, parties mushroomed and the clergy began to realize their tremendous political powers. From this grew their religious demands.
As demonstrations widened, Moslem traditionalists began shouting anti-shah slogans, claiming the monarchy and an Islamic government could not go together and that it was the clergy, not the politicians, who knew the answers to the country's problems.
The chief clergy leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, proclaimed from his exile in Iraq: "There will be no monarchy, but the rule of Islamic law. The clergy will sit in council and rule by virtue of its wisdom."
Politicians riding Khomeini's bandwagon wondered it that would not simply lead to a church dictatorship instead of the democracy they were fighting for. They worried that the ascendancy of the Islamic movement would dwarf their objectives of restoration of basic liberties.
Although few clergymen in Iran support the amputation of the hands of thieves and flogging of rapists, their interpretation of Islamic law is strict. The clergy insists it must scrutinize all laws for un-Islamic elements and be able to scrap any it deems unfit. This would not only affect nearly all existing laws, based on French jurisprudence, it would leave no room for a legislature.
The country's intellectuals, for the time being, cannot hope to win popular support without patronage of the clergy. That means intellectuals cannot hope to counter the rising tide of the clergy movement with a democratic alternative, not at least until political awareness grows substantially among the public.
In the heat of the moment, the people may perhaps not realize they have pledged to return to an old order, the society they shunned to enter the twentieth century, said a political analyst.
The current situation in Iran stemming from these motives and movements is bleak.
The shah's handover of Tehran and 11 other towns to the military has slammed the door on a compromise with the opposition that never seemed quite possible anyway and has left him with few alternatives if it fails.