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Fewer mullahs seek political office in Iran

Iranians elect a new parliament on Sunday - yet what one might think would be a hot issue, the war with Iraq, is not an issue at all. Most Iranians, angry that Iraq invaded their country 31/2 years ago, support the war effort.

Iran is not a democracy, its leaders stress. This means there is no political freedom, in the Western sense. Those who reject the principle of the Islamic Republic are not allowed to participate in politics. Most leaders of lay and nationalist parties are either in jail or in exile. Left-wing groups have been disbanded. Communist party leaders have been executed.

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Significantly, fewer mullahs are contesting this election than did the last election four years ago. In a speech Wednesday, Ayatollah Hossein Montazeri, Ayatollah Khomeini's heir apparent, asked voters to ''send competent representatives to the assembly. . . . Deputies should be familiar with matters of national interest.''

Many Iranians interpreted this statement as a warning they should not necessarily vote for the very religious candidates, many of whom are politically inexperienced.

Former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan heads the only opposition in the Majlis (parliament), but he plans to return to private life soon. His party, the National Liberation Movement, is boycotting the elections.

The candidates vying for the 270 Majlis seats can be roughly divided into two groups:

* Those who support President Ali Khamenei and Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi , who favor government intervention in economic and social matters. They believe Iran should reduce imports and bolster its own industry. They favor land reform and organization of a state-run food distribution system. Their aim is to achieve economic self-sufficiency in the next 10 years.

* Those who oppose state involvement in economic and social matters. They believe in a free economy and think Iran should avoid protectionism and conduct trade with Eastern and Western countries that are not hostile to the Islamic revolution. The leader of this second group is said to be the speaker of the Majlis, Hashemi Rafsanjani. In recent months, he has behaved like a head of state, receiving foreign guests and touring the country with Cabinet members to meet with local authorities.

Debate between the two groups has been veiled. Campaigning on radio or television is forbidden. There have been very few political gatherings. Friday prayer leaders have refrained from supporting any particular candidate.

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Western diplomats in Tehran wonder whether the often poorly educated Iranians understand the political differences between the candidates. But, a member of the ruling Islamic Republic Party contacted in Tehran says, ''People watched the political debate during the past four years. They know who they are going to vote for.''

Many Majlis debates have been broadcast live on radio. And the Iranian press has carried long stories on the issues being discussed. One article, for example , spoke of the severe criticism dealt by several deputies to Interior Minister Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. He had appointed to the war-ravaged Khuzestan Province a high-level civil servant who allegedly misused public funds.

Although Iran's top leaders - Ayatollah Khomeini and President Khamenei - do not face the electorate, every other official will see his mandate either terminated or reconfirmed.

Very few candidates will secure the 50 percent of the votes required to get elected, which means there will likely be a runoff. It is possible that no group will win a clear majority, which would mean the formation of a coalition cabinet.

When the new assembly convenes in May, its first order of business will be to elect a new speaker, although Rafsanjani will likely keep the job. According to parliamentary procedure, Prime Minister Mussavi will resign, but he may be reappointed by Khamenei. Mussavi or his successor will then form a new cabinet.

The outgoing assembly's greatest achievement is that it has survived several crises. When the deputies first gathered in May 1980, 36 seats were empty because violence had disturbed voting in some areas, most of them ethnically Kurdish.

Most deputies were sympathetic to the clergy-dominated Islamic Republic Party. They quickly clashed with the more liberal President, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr. In June 1981, the Majlis impeached him. A few days later, 23 MPs died in a bomb blast claimed by the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, which supported Bani-Sadr. This triggered government repression of armed opponents. Many were tortured and executed.

''The outgoing assembly always reacted very emotionally,'' an Iranian official said last week. ''I hope the future deputies will have more rational attitudes.''

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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