Calls For Revenge - and Caution

Despite Iranian threats, reaction to Flight 655's fate is muted

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A throng of angry mourners surged through the streets of Tehran, balancing the flag-draped coffins of Iran's latest martyrs above their heads. "Death to America!" "Death to Reagan!" "Revenge, revenge!" they shouted, as the cameras of foreign journalists invited for the occasion focused on close- packed faces distorted by fury and grief.

While U.S. officials struggled to explain how the U.S.S. Vincennes had mistakenly shot down Iran Air Flight 655 with 290 civilians aboard, the mullahs who run Iran sought to make the most of their morbid propaganda windfall. Public memorial services took place in at least four cities. At Bandar Abbas, the coastal town from which the doomed jet took off, reporters were given a look at some of the bloated and mutilated bodies of the victims, about 170 of whom had been dragged from the Persian Gulf by week's end.

Iranian leaders took turns denouncing the misdeeds of the "arch-Satan" America. President Seyed Ali Khamene'i called the downing of the aircraft "one of the biggest crimes of the war," while Ayatullah Hussein Ali Montazeri, designated successor to Spiritual Leader Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, advocated sabotage "on American financial, political and military targets everywhere." Khomeini urged his people to "go to the war fronts and fight against America and its lackeys." Both Khamene'i and Khomeini, however, seemed just as intent on redoubling efforts against Iraq as denouncing America.

Militant rhetoric aside, many analysts concluded that immediate retaliation against the U.S. was unlikely. For one thing, the Iranians appear to lack the military capability to strike an effective blow at U.S. forces in the region. Though the Revolutionary Guards' Boghammar speedboats continue to threaten neutral shipping in the crowded gulf, any attempt to confront U.S. warships patrolling in the area would be suicidal. And sponsorship of new terrorist bombings or kidnapings would only turn international public opinion against Iran, taking much of the onus off the U.S.

There were uncharacteristic calls for restraint from some Iranian leaders and their allies. Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the pro-Iranian Hizballah in Lebanon, urged that no harm come to the nine American hostages held by Muslim extremists. "I find no justification for making the hostages account for a matter to which they are not connected," Fadlallah said. Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's powerful and pragmatic Assembly speaker, last week warned against "some amateurish action" that might "remove the wave of propaganda that is now heaped on America's head." By showing moderation, the Iranians apparently hope to press their propaganda advantage when the United Nations Security Council considers Iran's call for condemnation of the U.S. and withdrawal of the American fleet from the Persian Gulf.

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