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Iranian squabble spotlights Khomeini heir. Montazeri stakes credibility on bid to open up election process

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The normally active political debate in Iran's ruling circles is growing even more vociferous as general elections draw near. One subject of controversy is how much political freedom to grant candidates and parties during the campaign for April's election.

But in addition to settling this basic issue, say Western diplomats observing the debate in Tehran, the outcome could determine the credibility of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri as designated successor to the nation's ``supreme leader,'' Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Ayatollah Montazeri has insisted that several political parties should be allowed to exist and field candidates for elections to the majlis, Iran's 270-seat legislative body. A source close to Montazeri says the cleric is keen on having the Liberation Movement of Iran, led by former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, take part in the election campaign. Dr. Bazargan opposes continuing the 7-year war against Iraq. He is also known to support restoring political and economic ties with the US.

Montazeri, on the other hand, has long been known for his anti-American views and opposition to any compromise with the present Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. In fact, in a speech Nov. 29, Montazeri's insistence on opening up the system to those such as Bazargan took Western observers in Tehran somewhat by surprise.

The reason behind Montazeri's stance, according to an Iranian journalist contacted in Tehran, is that liberalized politics could provide a safety valve. Montazeri, this source says, believes that the best way to ensure the survival of the current Islamic regime is to open the system, allowing a modicum of dissent to be expressed in public.

However, Iran's minister of the interior (who is in charge of organizing the elections) apparently disagrees. Hojatolislam Ali Akbar Mohtashami announced last week that only independent candidates would be allowed to run and that no national political party would be authorized to take part in the campaign. Mr. Mohtashami said this was because the commission set up 1982 to legalize political parties hasn't yet completed its work.

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