The influential speaker of the Iranian parliament, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, has joined ranks with a group of moderates trying to temper the power of the ruling fundamentalists.
The impact of his switch on the convoluted power struggles in Iran is already visible. And Rafsanjani and his new allies - two former premiers, Ayatollah Muhammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani and Mehdi Bazargan - all have past links with the underground movement that presents the strongest challenge to the present regime , the Islamic leftist guerrillas of the Mujahideen-e Khalq.
This is the report reaching this correspondent's ''listening post'' here from reliable sources in Iran.
A story that has been circulating in Tehran describes what triggered Rafsanjani's shift. It appears that Rafsanjani showed up not long ago at Tehran's dreaded Evin prison and asked for a meeting with his son-in-law, who had been imprisoned as a member of the Mujahideen-e Khalq. The prisoner happened to be a son of the late Ayatollah Hassan Lahouti, a strong critic of the regime.
Another of Lahouti's sons had died in a gunbattle with Revolutionary Guards in Rasht, on the Caspian coast, and the authorities at Evin refused permission to Rafsanjani to see the young Lahouti there. Angered, Rafsanjani decided to join the alliance that had just come about between Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani and Mr. Bazargan.
The effects of the triple alliance were immediately felt.
Pictures began appearing in the Iranian press of Bazargan and Rafsanjani talking animatedly in the lobbies of the parliament (Majlis). It seemed difficult to believe that barely three months ago there was a move to have Bazargan and his group of ''liberal'' deputies ousted from the house, after the former premier delivered a speech defending the Mujahideen guerrillas. After a long absence, Bazargan's group of ''liberals'' are now reported to be showing up regularly for assembly sessions.
Rafsanjani also demonstrated how he could influence the direction of the voting for or against the government of Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi. When Musavi was pressured by rival groups within his Cabinet to relinquish the portfolio of foreign minister and hand it to Ali Akbar Velayati, the Majlis speaker lobbied vigorously in the House to ensure that Velayati got a vote of confidence.
The result of the voting in mid-December may have surprised not only Musavi but also Velayati. He obtained 174 votes for, with 6 against, and 6 absentions. Only two months earlier, when Velayati had been nominated as premier, he obtained only 74 votes for, with 80 against and 34 absentions.
With Rafsanjani's influence so clearly demonstrated, the speculation is that it may not be long before the group of moderates to which he belongs begins putting on the pressure to have Musavi replaced by Velayati as premier. One ostensible reason for Velayati's failure, in October, to get Majlis approval as premier was his American education. But in the choppy political waters of Iran today, much depends on the kind of wave one is riding at any particular moment.
Rafsanjani may, of course, have had to pay a political price for his moves against the Turkish-speaking hard-line mullahs now controlling the country's prisons and other important organs of the regime. After Hojatolislam Ali Khamenei, now the President, was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in June, his job as Friday prayer leader of Tehran was given ''provisionally'' to Rafsanjani.
The job packs a tremendous amount of political influence, since the sermons delivered by the ''Imam Jomeh'' at the mass prayer congregations at Tehran University every Friday (the Muslim Sabbath) get published automatically in every major newspaper in the country, along with full radio and television coverage in a nationwide hookup. The job was Khamenei's stepping stone to the presidency.
But it may not have escaped Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that not only Rafsanjani was once a member of the Mujahideen-e Khalq guerrillas, during the struggle against the Shah. So was another member of the moderate triple alliance to which Rafsanjani now belongs: Ayatollah Mahdavi-Kani. Bazargan, the third pillar of the alliance, had links with the Mujahideen almost since their inception about a decade ago, right through the period after Khomeini came to power.
Meanwhile, Rafsanjani's Persian-speaking ally, Mahdavi-Kani, has been pushing ahead with his moves to gain control of the komitehs, the revolutionary security organizations that have kept ''counterrevolutionary'' and leftist opponents of the regime in line.