AFTER a decade of war, social revolution, religious zealotry bordering on fanaticism, and international isolation, Iran needs all the help it can get. How it handles the deplorable execution of Lt. Col. William Higgins by a pro-Iranian Shiite Moslem group will be most important to Iran's future. Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's newly-elected president, knows this. He is playing on his reputation as a pragmatist and relative moderate. He is making economic overtures to other countries, and there are at least some small signs that the government he is forming will take a more acceptable line on international hostage-taking.
Rafsanjani has more power under Iran's newly-amended constitution. But he also must deal with disputatious clerical factions and fundamentalist mullahs opposed to economic liberalization. It is obvious that Rafsanjani is not in complete control. Foreign Minister Velayati condemns kidnappings and death threats. But radical Shiites in Lebanon listen to Interior Minister Mohtashemi, who urges them on in their attacks against US and Israeli targets.
It is hard to overstate the problems Iran faces in rebuilding its economy and removing its pariah status among nations.
The country relies on oil exports for 90 percent of its income, yet is able to produce at just 50 percent of pre-Iran-Iraq war capacity. Inflation runs at about 50 percent. One-fourth of all Iranians are unemployed. Heavy industry operates at 30 percent of capacity due to shortages in raw material and spare parts. Iran's Chamber of Commerce estimates it will take $100 billion to repair all the damage done by the eight-year war with Iraq.
To bring about the ``economic boom'' Rafsanjani is calling for, will require considerable assistance from stronger countries. The new president and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who replaced the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as supreme spiritual leader in Iran) favor a free-market system and large-scale foreign investment.
Rafsanjani assures his country's religious leaders that ``we are in the middle of the road of the revolution.'' He is careful to continue the ``neither East nor West'' line on foreign policy. At the same time, he says, ``We do not want to strain relations with countries which would like to have healthy ties with us.''
Relations with the United States certainly have been strained by the taking of US hostages. The apparent death of Colonel Higgins will test the leadership abilities of both presidents - George Bush and Rafsanjani. But first, the new Iranian leader must clearly indicate his aversion to murderous terrorism. Only then will he deserve the kind of international help Iran so desperately needs.