SINCE his election as president of Iran 18 months ago, Hashemi Rafsanjani has had three goals, according to European diplomats based in Tehran: to enforce a less strict and more pragmatic vision of Islam, to break the country's diplomatic isolation, and to rebuild its economy. In recent months the president has scored several points in his battle against his radical and dogmatic opponents, Western observers in Tehran say.
Mr. Rafsanjani recently imposed changes which were precipitated in part by the Gulf crisis. Though not spectacular, they show that after a decade-long stalemate Iranian society and political life are on the move, these observers say.
When the Gulf crisis began, Iran's political elite was divided into two camps. Those led by Rafsanjani believed that Iran should use the crisis to improve its relations with the international community and should in no way come to the rescue of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, according to a close aide of Rafsanjani. Several members of the legislative body led by former ultra-radical Minister of the Interior Ali Akbar Mohtashemi felt that Iran and Iraq should join forces to fight against ``US imperialism,'' an Iranian journalist says.
This disagreement between the two rival factions led the Iranian government to condemn both Iraq's annexation of Kuwait and the deployment of Western forces in the Gulf region.
But an extremely low turnout at a series of anti-American demonstrations organized throughout Iran on Nov. 4 by the radical faction bolstered Rafsanjani's resolve.
Since then, the president and his ministers have hardened their stance toward Baghdad, according to a Syrian ambassador interviewed in Europe, who emphasized that the apparently diminishing support for Iranian radicals has strengthened Rafsanjani's hand in foreign policy.
As a result, this diplomat says, Iran has dropped its initial idea of providing Iraq with food and medication and regularly insists it is fully applying United Nations sanctions.
On Nov. 30, Rafsanjani said on Tehran Radio, ``The international community should put an end to Iraq's aggression in Kuwait by all means, including force.''
Western diplomats in Tehran read Rafsanjani's statement as an implicit approval of the deployment of Western and Arab forces in the Gulf area.
Tehran's proclaimed increasing cooperation with the UN has led members of the European Community to lift all sanctions against the Islamic republic. The Community plans to open a diplomatic bureau in Tehran shortly, EC sources say.
On Sept. 27 Britain restored its diplomatic ties with Iran.
Rafsanjani has also gained the upper hand against his rivals on the domestic political scene.
Early in October the president's supporters succeeded, through political maneuvering, in preventing most radical clerics from taking part in an election to the Assembly of Religious Experts. This 83-member body is now entirely dominated by mullahs (Muslim clerics) who support the present president of the republic as well as the most pragmatic members of his Cabinet.
The control of this assembly is of limited political significance in the Islamic republic system, but the affair shows that Rafsanjani and his allies are now capable of winning a general election.
Radicals opposed to Rafsanjani's policy enjoy a slim majority in the current legislative body which was elected in the spring of 1988. The next general election is due in the spring of 1992.
Another success for Rafsanjani is the merging of three of the nation's police forces: The national guard, the revolutionary committees, and the municipal police forces will soon wear the same uniform and obey a single hierarchy.
The leaders of the revolutionary committees, who were known for their strict interpretation of Islamic laws, tried to oppose the police reform until the bill was eventually approved by the parliament in June this year after a lengthy debate.
Those successes have apparently emboldened the president, who on Nov. 30 called at the Friday prayer for ``an easier satisfaction of sexual needs in the Iranian society.''
Rafsanjani clearly suggested that relations between unmarried men and women should be allowed. European diplomats in Tehran say Rafsanjani's goal is to render obsolete the Islamic law that says that unmarried women who have sexual relations should be either flogged or stoned.
The president's radical opponents within the parliament have already accused him of betraying the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's legacy.
If implemented the president's proposed reform would bring about dramatic changes in Iranian citizens' lives, and could also help Iran improve its ties with the West.
International human rights organizations have asked Iran to ban corporal punishment from its code of laws.
On the economic front, Rafsanjani eventually persuaded the leadership that Iran should borrow money from abroad to rebuild its war torn economy.
Mohammad Hossein Adeli, governor of the Central Bank, announced on Nov. 11 that Iran was looking for a loan of $17.5 billion.
Mr. Adeli didn't mention the names of the banks his country is negotiating with but insisted Iran would not deal with the International Monetary Fund. Rafsanjani has said he doesn't want any international body interfering in the way Iran manages its economy.
A few weeks earlier on Sept. 24 Mr. Mohtashami, the leader of the radical faction in the parliament, had voiced his opposition to the idea of borrowing money from abroad.
``Borrowing money abroad won't solve our economic problems but will enslave us,'' he told Iranian journalists.