In Iran, domestic issues outweigh Gulf crisis

One might think that, for the Iranians, the crisis in the Persian Gulf would outweigh all domestic politics. Indeed, it is quite the contrary. Iranian authorities apparently want to avoid a panic over the war with Iraq. They insist life is going on as usual in Tehran.

Last week, for example, the lead articles in all Tehran's major newspapers covered the first meeting of the new Majlis (parliament). The newly elected deputies will soon debate bills on land reform, private ownership of property, and foreign trade, Iranian officials say. As for the war, the Majlis has no say. It is Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's spiritual leader, and the Supreme Defense Council that make war-related decisions.

A big winner in the April 15 elections was Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was reelected to the Majlis by a huge margin. An overwhelming majority of his new colleagues reconfirmed his mandate as speaker of the Majlis, another sign of his rising power. It is widely believed that his prestige has never been so high.

As deputies entered the floor one after the other last Monday, they were closely watched from the gallery by foreign diplomats trying to compile a ''who's who'' of the new assembly. Diplomats in Tehran say they have little information on the assembly's new political alignment.

''Rafsanjani himself is trying to identify the new political groups of the assembly and to assess their strength,'' the campaign manager of a successful candidate explained. ''Rafsanjani is a skillful politician. He will sense his assembly and then adjust to it.''

The makeup of the new Majlis appears to have changed: Only 100 of the 270 deputies of the previous assembly won a second term. There are apparently fewer Islamic clergymen. And only about 100 deputies are said to be members of the ruling Islamic Republic Party, fewer than in the last parliament. The others are said to be independent or backed by other Islamic groups. But all deputies, at least publicly, support the principle of the Islamic republic - a requirement for participation in official Iranian politics.

Debates in the new Majlis should be calmer than in the previous one. The five deputies of the vocal opposition group, led by former Premier Mehdi Bazargan, boycotted the elections and have left the assembly.

Voter turnout in the capital, Tehran, was relatively low: Official figures show a 15 percent drop in the number of voters, compared with the last election. Some voters may have been apathetic because of the absence of opposition candidates. The low turnout may also be a response to calls for a boycott issued by exiled opponents. It is unlikely that, with the recent escalation in the Gulf war, the new deputies will deny Prime Minister Hossein Moussavi a vote of confidence. However, Mr. Moussavi's planned shakeup of the Cabinet may rankle the assembly. Moussavi is said to be eager to get rid of the ministers of education, interior, and foreign affairs. He may resign if he fails to rally the support of the assembly for these changes, an Iranian official says.

Sources in Tehran say the minister of foreign affairs, Ali Akbar Vellayati, is ironically a possible successor. The appointment of Mr. Vellayati would be a victory for assembly speaker Rafsanjani, with whom Vellayati has had close ties since the 1979 revolution.

Officials in Tehran say balloting ran smoothly in Iran's two northwestern Kurdish provinces where violence disturbed voting in the last elections four years ago.

However, widespread fraud left 30 seats empty after voting results were invalidated in the industrial city of Isfahan and in constituencies around the southern city of Shiraz, according to supporters of the regime contacted in Tehran. They say the authorities plan to organize new polls in those constituencies.

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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