Any hopes that moderate elements might steer Iran toward a more reasonable relationship with the West were dashed recently when the Ayatollah Khomeini fired his designated successor, Hussein Ali Montazeri.
Along with Montazeri's removal came the resignations of two senior diplomats - the deputy foreign minister and the ambassador to the United Nations - both of whom had been identified with efforts to repair relationships with the West.The ejection of Montazeri and the others not only throws into confusion the question of the ailing 88-year-old Khomeini's successor but also undermines Iranian moderates, strengthens the hand of hard-liners, and signals a return to the more radical days of Iran's Islamic revolution.
That's anything but encouraging for the West or for Iranians themselves who had hoped for changes in Iran's restrictive and fanatical society.
Montazeri recently had criticized some of the things done under Khomeini's revolution and called for greater freedoms.
He also initially opposed Khomeini's order that Moslems seek out and kill author Salman Rushdie, although Montazeri later supported the decree - a change that probably came under pressure.
Radical clerics who favor state controls on the economy, stringent Islamic punishments, a defiant nonaligned foreign policy and who preach hatred of the West, have exploited the Rushdie affair to isolate pragmatic moderates in the regime and cut short efforts at reform.
All of these changes also threaten the position of Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leader of the pragmatists and the person seen as the real power in Iran once Khomeini is gone from the scene.
Rafsanjani's political future now appears in doubt, and he may be the next to fall.
While no one can confidently predict what may happen next in Iran, it is clear that even after Khomeini's death there will be confusion, power struggles and perhaps violence.
Unfortunately, radical fundamentalists of the Khomeini type appear to be gaining the upper hand.
If that situation persists, the Middle East and the West will continue to be troubled by Iranian belligerence and the people of that benighted nation will continue to suffer under a harsh regime long after Khomeini is gone.