The Iranian parliament, charged with deciding the fate of 52 American hostages, held its first regular session today, but the pace of decision-making provided no hope for their imminent release.
The parliament elected a member of the hard-line clerical Islamic Republican Party as its speaker, but then got bogged down in a divisive debate over the name for the legislature. The members adjourned until Monday without even finishing their scheduled business of electing a deputy speaker and six secretaries.
The election of Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as speaker by a large majority was the first concrete indication of where the political strength lies in the parliament, and it was not a good harbinger for President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, a relative moderate. Rafsanjani, who has served as acting interior minister, is a leading member of the Islamic Republican Party, which is challenging Bani-Sadr for political power.
Bani-Sadr has urged the militant students holding the hostages at the American Embassy and elsewhere in the country for the past eight months to release them so that the nation can restore its economy and foreign relations. The clerical party, although concerned about the economy, gives priority to purging Iran of Western influence in a drive to build an Islamic state.
The hostages, who are regarded as spies by many Iranians, have often served as a rallying point for the clergy's anti-Americanism. The militant clerics have made it clear that they are in no hurry to settle the hostage issue. The matter was not discussed in today's session.
Rafsanjani received 146 of the 196 votes cast. Hassan Habibi, minister of higher education and Bani-Sadr's expected candidate for the premiership, ran a distant second with 20 votes. Former prime minister Mehdi Bazargan was last with 12 votes.
If the vote for Rafsanjani is an accurate indicator of sentiments in the parliament, Bani-Sadr is likely to find it impossible to get his choice for prime minister. that it would take weeks before a prime minister and Cabinet are approved, a necessary step before the hostage issue can be considered.
Hassan Ayat, a key member of the Islamic Republican Party and a critic of Bani-Sadr, said that even after the government is formed "the hostage issue will not come up soon. We have more important things to do."
He cited such matters as agreeing on permanent rules of order for the parliament, considering laws passed by the now-dissolved Revolutionary Council, which, officially served as the temporary legislature, and investigating this month's alleged coup.
Ahmad Molazadeh, a supporter of the party from the northeastern Khorassam Province, said he thought the government could be formed within two weeks. But he said problems of the economy, inequality between rich and poor and purges of government officials should take priority over the hostages.
Sadegh Gili Khalkhali, an independent who is a brother of "hanging judge" Ayatollah Sadegh Khalkhali, was the most optimistic on the timetable on the hostages. He said the issue could be addressed within about a month.
There was little agreement on the candidates for prime minister, indicating the possibility of a prolonged parliamentary battle.
The Islamic Republican Party is the only party organization in parliament, but it is loosely controlled and claims many supporters outside the party. Estimates of its backing range upward from 150 in the 270-seat body, which currently has about 60 vacancies because of disqualifications and cancellation of the spring elections in some provinces.
A debate for more than an hour, which sometimes turned rancorous, on the issue of the parliament's name was an indication of some of the basic divisions facing the body.
The question is whether to call it the Islamic Majlis or the National Majlis. Rafsanjani finally adjourned the session, telling the members, "We should go say our prayers," apparently in an effort to avoid further division.
The meeting was even more raucous before Rafsanjani, who has a reputation as a good manager, took the chair. The temporary speaker, Yadollah Sahabi, was elected solely because he was the oldest member of the parliament, and he had trouble keeping order during the debate on adopting temporary rules of procedure.
Sitting under an ornate gold and crystal chandelier, a remnant of the opulence of the ousted shah's government, the members shouted at the chairman for the right to speak.
Finally Sahabi called a 15-minute recess that lasted for more than an hour. When the members returned they overwhelmingly voted in favor of accepting the temporary rules of order.