In Tehran the confrontation between ultraconservative fundamentalists and social reformers has started. The first victims were the two leaders of the conservative faction, Minister of Commerce Habibollah Asgar-Oladi and Minister of Labor Ahmad Tavakoli, who were forced to resign last week.
Mr. Asgar-Oladi, once a candidate for the presidency, had close ties with the powerful Tehran Merchants Guild. Mr. Tavakoli, a former president of a provincial revolutionary court, came under criticism for his very conservative draft bill on relations between employers and employees.
The conflict between the two wings of the government was prompted by a sudden rise in the social tension across the country. There have been signs of popular discontent in many Iranian cities in recent weeks.
Reports are sketchy, but a source within the regime confirms that a food shortage provoked clashes between revolutionary guards and demonstrators in the eastern city of Mashhad. The same source says that popular resentment grew when Mashhad inhabitants realized that shopkeepers were stockpiling commodities waiting for their prices to soar. This was said to be done with the complicity of some of the local revolutionary authorities.
The source also reports that Iran suffered from a shortage of bread during the holy month of Ramadan. A few days later it became clear that a group of wholesalers had withdrawn important quantities of flour from the market. Troubles due to an acute shortage of drinking water were also reported in a poor neighborhood in the south of Tehran.
Asgar-Oladi, who was in charge of trade regulations, was summoned by the parliament, and several deputies criticized his leniency toward merchants. The tension peaked when Prime Minister Hossein Mus-savi attacked ''the evil merchants who organize economic terrorism.'' Mr. Mussavi even suggested that those ''found guilty of economic crimes'' should be sentenced to death.
Supporters of the ultraconservative fundamentalist wing of the government are middle-class business owners and Hodjatiehs. The Hodjatieh is a semi-clandestine movement that was created during the imperial regime. Its leader Ayatollah Mahmoud Alabi opposes any involvement of the clergy in political affairs and supports the establishment of a totally free economy. Hodjatiehs are also responsible for persecutions of adherents of the Bahai faith. The roots of the present conflict can be found in the period following the ousting of President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.
In July 1981, reformists supporting Ayatollah Khomeini and ultraconservative fundamentalists formed a coalition government whose top priority was the fight against the left-wing People's Mujahideen guerrillas.
Ayatollah Khomeini is now said to be siding with his reformist prime minister. But observers in Tehran say the confrontation is far from over. With the backing of various businessmen associations and several clergy leaders, the ultraconservatives are not beaten yet. The conflict might even erupt into street violence, for both groups have supporters within the various revolutionary militias.