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Iran moves to choose Khomeini successor

Iran has taken the first step toward choosing the successor of leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - a step that has strengthened his supporters.

The traditional clergy, on the other hand, remains in the shadows as does the small parliamentary opposition, which is on the defensive. Also, the Mujahideen-e Khalq guerrilla group has been dealt serious blows in recent weeks.

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Iranians voted Dec. 9 to elect an assembly of 83 mullahs, or religious teachers, that would pick the eventual successor to Khomeini. The results are not yet known, but the outcome is a foregone conclusion. All 146 candidates were mullahs unconditionally supporting the regime. Sayed Ali Khamenei, president of the republic, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Majlis (parliament), and Ayatollah Moussavi Ardebili, chief justice of the supreme court, will probably be among the most prominent members of the new assembly.

The traditional Muslim clergy, whose leaders are men like Ayatollah Kazem Shariat-Madari, carefully kept away from the ballot. Despite some of their public statements they never really approved of Khomeini's theories. And Ayatollah Shariat-Madari has been swept aside. His public excuses after the abortive coup staged by the late Sadeq Ghotbzadeh were seen in Tehran as political suicide.

The very anticommunist Hodjatieh faction is also out of the game. Its members are now openly criticized in the press, which in Iran is a sign of declining influence.

Most observers see Ayatollah Hussein Montazeri as the front-runner for the post of ''guide of the revolution.'' Opponents to the Islamic regime charge him with incompetence and senility. His followers answer that he is now in top form after ''a difficult period that followed the tortures he endured in the imperial jails.'' Ayatollah Montazeri is already being prepared for his future role. He receives ministers and representatives to the Majlis and, as reported in the press, ''provides them with the necessary guidelines.''

Should Montazeri succeed Khomeini, no dramatic change can be expected in Iran , except that he will never enjoy the authority of his predecessor. But if the assembly decides that Montazeri doesn't have the political strength, a council of three or five theologians could be set up instead. In that case the assembly could ask one or two representatives of the traditional clergy to step in, in order to broaden popular support for the regime.

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