IRAN is bracing for its fourth general parliamentary election since the Islamic republic was set up in 1979.
The main stake of the April 10 contest is whether President Hashemi Rafsanjani will succeed in securing a majority within the legislative body. Until now the president has run the country with the unflinching backing of no more than 100 deputies out of the 270-seat Majlis (parliament).
Mr. Rafsanjani also enjoys the support of the country's supreme guide, Ali Khamenei, who is the successor of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Western diplomats term Rafsanjani's political line as "moderate, pragmatic, dominated by a willingness to improve his country's relations with the international community and to favor a return of Iran to a free market economy."
Addressing Friday prayers last December the president summarized his political credo by saying:
"We have to be present among the international community without being accused of being terrorists or extremists. We should keep
ourselves away from slogans that frighten the whole world. Then Iran will become the lighthouse of the entire Islamic world."
Relations with the United States have not been an issue in the campaign because all candidates agree that the US remains Iran's archenemy.
But many Western diplomats here, as well as Iranian citizens, cast doubt on whether the anti-American rhetoric of Rafsanjani and his supporters is sincere. It is widely believed here that if his followers gain an overwhelming majority in the Majlis, Rafsanjani may try to embark on a rapprochement with the US.
Candidates supporting the president are grouped under the umbrella of the so-called Society of the Combatant Clergy. Throughout their campaign, which reached a climax in March during the holy month of Ramadan, these candidates emphasized what they described as a series of diplomatic victories scored by Iran under Rafsanjani's leadership: keeping the country out of last year's Gulf war; restoring ties with a series of Western and Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia; gaining the verdict last December of then United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar that Iraq was responsible for the outbreak of the eight-year war between the two countries.
Candidates of the Society of the Combatant Clergy also back Iran's present economic policy, the cornerstone of which is privatization of state-owned companies.
Last month the government decided to sell most of the shares of several large factories on the Tehran stock exchange - including car assembly plants, aluminium manufacturers, and pipe producers. All those companies were once owned by relatives or close supporters of the late shah and had been nationalized in the wake of the 1979 revolution.
Opponents to the president's policy are running under the umbrella of the so-called Society of Combatant Ulemas (religious scholars), led by Mehdi Karrubi, the speaker of the Majlis.
One of this group of prominent figures is Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, Iran's former ambassador to Damascus, widely considered by Western intelligence services to have been the mentor of hostages-takers in Lebanon. Mr. Mohtashemi regularly appears at his campaign meetings flanked by some of the former students who held 52 Americans hostage in 1979 and 1980.
Radicals stepped up their attacks on Rafsanjani's foreign policy in February after Israeli troops killed Sheikh Abbas Moussavi, the Lebanese leader of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah movement.
An editorial in the Tehran daily Salam then accused the Iranian government of having convinced its Lebanese allies to release their Western captors "without getting anything in return."
The editorial continued: "Western hostages in Lebanon were a protection for Lebanese Muslims against the savage Zionist aggressions."
Western observers in Tehran say radicals have two trump cards in the present campaign:
* They control the most important Tehran daily newspapers.
* The government's economic policy's most visible result has so far been a steady increase in the cost of living that is triggering widespread popular discontent.
Radical candidates regularly stress that privatization of state enterprises has brought about nothing but higher prices for the poor classes in Iranian society.
THE race between the two competing groups turned sour in early March when the radicals accused the Council of the Guardians of the Constitution (the body that oversees the elections) of excluding hard-liners from the candidates lists.
Mr. Karrubi, the speaker of the Majlis, who is known for being sympathetic to the radicals, complained that "several revolutionary figures have been declared ineligible."
A few days ago the Society of the Combatant Ulemas announced that 30 of its incumbent deputies had been kicked out of the race and that national television, which is headed by Rafsanjani's brother, was preventing radical candidates from expressing their views freely.
Iranian elections are far from democratic in the Western sense of the term. All candidates have to approve the principle of theocratic rule and several opposition groups have been barred from running.
For example, former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and his political friends, who have for years peacefully criticized the regime have not been allowed to participate.
The Iranian electoral system is complex. More than 3,079 candidates are running in 196 constituencies. After the April 10 vote, there will be a runoff, the date of which has not been set.