Flame of revolutionary faith still burning in Iran: Fundamentalists' hand is strengthened when economic failure is blamed on Rafsanjani, writes Charles Richards from Tehran

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The Independent Online
IF NUMBERS are an index of revolutionary fervour, then support for Iran's Islamic experiment is on the wane.

It was still an impressive turnout. Over 50,000 came out for the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the death of Imam Khomeini. But numbers were down on the huge crowds who spilt out in hundreds of thousands in spontaneous grief when the Imam died.

From the air you could see the convoy of coaches stretching miles along the road, south of Tehran. The crowds gathering outside the gilt mausoleum looked like the gate for a Premier League game, dressed in black, interspersed with military khaki or green fatigues.

They had made their way to Behesht-e-Zahra, the sprawling cemetery south of Tehran where the flower of Iranian youth, the thousands slaughtered in the eight-year war against Iraq, are buried under the shade of casuarina trees. Many were in wheelchairs, a stark reminder of the suffering of that terrible war.

Air force helicopters, big twin- rotor Chinooks and Hueys, those sturdy workhorses of the Vietnam war with their distinctive clatter, immortalised in the film Apocalypse Now, shuttled back and forth with their cargoes of VIPs. Mullahs chattered into walkie-talkies to control security.

Inside the huge shrine, all tubular steel supports and air conditioning ducts, the pillars were festooned with sprays of bright gladioli and black portraits of the late leader. Tens of thousands waited for the ceremony to begin, doused in showers of rose water by men with industrial sprayers.

Among the guests, distinguishable by their head gear, were delegates from brotherly Islamic states: central Asians from the Islamic republics of the old Soviet Union in lambswool hats, tall Sudanese in turbans and Kuwaitis in white head-dresses. As the slogan in the airforce hangar read, 'Without the name of Imam Khomeini, this revolution is not known anywhere in the world.'

There were Palestinians and little crowds from Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. There was even a proud bunch of 94 from Bosnia and the Balkans. Their spokesman, Dalic Zigad, a young religious teacher from Split in Croatia, who had studied in Pakistan, expressed his gratitude to the Iranian authorities.

'All the world is responsible for what is happening in Bosnia, especially the Islamic world. I see Iran as the first country that can help the Bosnian people.' A cheer leader roused the crowd with chants of 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel'. Yet, for all the slogans and support from abroad, Iran has failed to export its revolution. Then the supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyyid Ali Khamenei, appeared on the balcony. He railed against Israel and America and rallied the people to Palestine.

He praised the pure path of Islam taken by Khomeini. He declared the system he founded was being administered by pious people, for whom only Islam was important. Some interpreted this as an attack on corruption in the government of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Those trained to identify miniscule shifts in the ruling elite point to further signs during the three-day holiday to commemorate Khomeini's death, that the position of President Rafsanjani is declining. State-run television showed the President addressing an almost empty hall on Friday night. He was shown, head bowed, in a line of other mullahs, listening as Ayatollah Khamenei spoke to a massive throng.

Despite the fall in numbers commemorating the late leader, Khomeini's stock remains high. Many recall with nostalgia a time of greater certainty. He had combined the position of spiritual and political leader. The constitution was designed for him and no one has assumed his mantle.

Tensions in the regime have been exacerbated by the failures of President Rafsanjani's reform programme. He liberalised import controls and floated the currency. But the government, after balancing the books in the Iran-Iraq war, rushed into debt. Now the economic reform programme is in disarray, due to mismanagement and corruption. The President is held accountable.

His misfortunes will strengthen the hardliners. The crowds may not be massing on the streets to mark Khomeini's demise, but the revolution he started remains very much alive.