Iranian squabble spotlights Khomeini heir. Montazeri stakes credibility on bid to open up election process

The normally active political debate in Iran's ruling circles is growing even more vociferous as general elections draw near. One subject of controversy is how much political freedom to grant candidates and parties during the campaign for April's election.

But in addition to settling this basic issue, say Western diplomats observing the debate in Tehran, the outcome could determine the credibility of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as designated successor to the nation's ``supreme leader,'' Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Ayatollah Montazeri has insisted that several political parties should be allowed to exist and field candidates for elections to the majlis, Iran's 270-seat legislative body. A source close to Montazeri says the cleric is keen on having the Liberation Movement of Iran, led by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, take part in the election campaign. Dr. Bazargan opposes continuing the 7-year war against Iraq. He is also known to support restoring political and economic ties with the US.

Montazeri, on the other hand, has long been known for his anti-American views and opposition to any compromise with the present Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. In fact, in a speech Nov. 29, Montazeri's insistence on opening up the system to those such as Bazargan took Western observers in Tehran somewhat by surprise.

The reason behind Montazeri's stance, according to an Iranian journalist contacted in Tehran, is that liberalized politics could provide a safety valve. Montazeri, this source says, believes that the best way to ensure the survival of the current Islamic regime is to open the system, allowing a modicum of dissent to be expressed in public.

However, Iran's minister of the interior (who is in charge of organizing the elections) apparently disagrees. Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Mohtashami announced last week that only independent candidates would be allowed to run and that no national political party would be authorized to take part in the campaign. Mr. Mohtashami said this was because the commission set up 1982 to legalize political parties hasn't yet completed its work.

Iranian exile sources say that without political parties, it will be almost impossible for the masses of poorly educated Iranians to understand the political bent of each individual candidate. Mohtashami's system, they charge, will favor the reelection of candidates who are already in office and thus more widely known. Bazargan and his allies have already announced a boycott of the election if they are not allowed to organize their party nationwide.

Ayatollah Khomeini, Prime Minister Hossein Musavi, and Parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani have so far not intervened in the debate. Western observers in Tehran say that if Montazeri's view doesn't eventually win the day, it will be a clear sign of his political weakness.

Paradoxically the conflict between Montazeri and Mohtashami comes at a time when Montazeri appears to have staged a successful political comeback.

Montazeri's position had been weakened in the aftermath of the US-arms-to-Iran affair. Last Sept. 28, Mehdi Hashemi - the brother of Montazeri's son-in-law - was executed after being convicted of a series of crimes. Mr. Hashemi was a close associate of Montazeri and was widely believed by Western intelligence services to direct Lebanon's Islamic Jihad, a group that still holds several foreign hostages. Hashemi's arrest in late 1986 had been widely seen as part of a secret deal between Iran and the US.

In the months following the November 1986 revelations of the Iran-contra affair, Montazeri maintained a discreetly low profile. Only in recent weeks, has he reappeared on Iranian TV and radio, reportedly after Khomeini himself ordered that Montazeri's speeches be aired without any editing. And since then, Iranian leaders have publicly reaffirmed that Montazeri is Khomeini's successor.

Mr. Van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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