Brussels — When Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini's son, Ahmad, handed over the red folder containing his father's will, those in attendance burst into tears. The folder was then tied with ribbon and sealed with wax.
It was the first meeting of the assembly of theologians who will pick a successor to Khomeini. Though nobody knows whether in his will Khomeini formally designates his successor, it is clear that his favorite candidate is Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri, a theologian in his 60s. But during the last weeks, observers in Tehran noticed that Ayatollah Montazeri was no more quoted in the press as a grand ayatollah but rather as an eminent Islamic scholar. At the same time, other senior clergymen were back in newspaper headlines.
This might give credit to rumors that the assembly would prefer to elect a council of three or five members to succeed Khomeini. Such a council would theoretically broaden the support for the regime, since the council would include representatives of different streams of the Iranian clergy.
The opposition between those favoring economic and social reforms and those opposing any change in the traditional society will dominate Iranian political life in the next months.
The controversy surrounding the labor law drafted by Labor Minister Ahmad Tavakoli is an example of that rift. The ultraconservative text does not provide for holidays with pay. Nor is there an unemployment insurance system. Free trade unions are forbidden, and it says that ''minors of age are employed on the basis of contracts signed by their tutors.''
Opponents to the bill say it was written to please small-business owners - especially carpetmakers, who often use children in their workshops.
The proposed bill was vetoed by both President Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi. The procedure to have it ratified bogged down several months ago.
An Iranian diplomat says: ''After the eviction of (President) Abolhassan Bani-Sadr and the assassination of his successor, Ali Rajai, we formed a government with all the groups supporting the principle of the Islamic Republic. This includes people with ultraconservative economic views.''
The leader of those free marketers is the minister of commerce, Habibollah Asgar-Oladi, whose brother is the president of Tehran's merchants guild.
Mr. Asgar-Oladi often appears as the political representative of the ''bazaar lobby.'' Middle-class artisans and shopkeepers form the backbone of the Iranian economy. But they are held responsible by many Iranians for the present raging inflation. Merchants backed by traditional moneylenders stockpile commodities, waiting for their prices to soar. Truck owners charge very high prices for fruits and vegetables they bought cheaply in rural areas.
Two weeks ago Prime Minister Mussavi, who is the leader of the reformist wing of the government, attacked the ''evil merchants who organize economic terrorism.'' Explaining there were ''good'' and ''bad'' shopkeepers, the prime minister said, ''The people ask us to deal with those rotten elements the same way we deal with counterrevolutionaries.'' Apparently, Mr. Mussavi would like those found guilty of ''economic crimes'' to be sentenced to death.
Says a supporter of this reformist line, ''We have to keep the promise we made to change the living conditions of the deprived people.''
Specialists in Iranian political history believe that a head-on clash between the government and the shopkeepers would mark the beginning of a new stage of the revolution. ''The (shopkeepers) are a big chunk to chew,'' noted a former official of the imperial regime. ''They already got rid of the Shah because he was running the economy against their interests.''
Ayatollah Khomeini is 83 years old and despite rumors to the contrary he appears in good shape. If he lives long enough to solve the political quarrels among his supporters, he might leave a relatively stable regime to his spiritual heirs. Should he die soon, the council in charge of electing his successor might be torn between ultraconservative fundamentalists and social reformers.