The Iranian parliament's initial efforts to deal with the hostage issue indicate that the assembly remains a faction-ridden body in which hard-line elements opposed to the Americans' release appear to have gathered strength in recent days.
Aside from a desire by hard-liners to put off debate on the hostages, a major problem in settling the problem appears to be the assembly's inexperience in parliamentary procedure and its failure in the six months of its existence so far to develop a decision-making process.
While some of the leading figures in the Majlis, or parliament, are fairly sophisticated, most are rural clerics and politically inexperienced laymen who are more or less oblivious to the international considerations associated with their deliberations.
These factors contribute to the parliament's difficulties in reaching a decision on conditions for the hostages' release and may well prolong the whole process of actually freeing them once terms are set.
After two days of closed-door debate on the question, the parliament remains a volatile and unpredictable arbiter comprised of disparate elements. But a breakdown of those elements, insofar as one is possible, may help to explain what the United States is up against in trying to obtain the release of its diplomats.
According to a diplomatic source reached by telephone in Tehran, the parliament currently is hung up on a discussion of principles for the hostages' release and has not dealt with any of the technicalities of such Iranian terms as the unfreezing of Iranian assets, the return off the late shah's property and the cancellation of all U.S. claims against Iran. These and a U.S. promise not to interfere in Iranian affairs constituted the four conditions laid down Sept. 12 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the Americans' release.
According to the diplomat, who is well informed on the hostage issue, the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai probably will assume the task of working out and implementing the details once the parliament has agreed upon general conditions.
An indication of the emergence of hard-liners on the hostage issue came during Sunday's session in which a conditions for release were to have been publicly announced. A motion to postpone debate on the conditions until the end of the current war between Iraq and Iran was narrowly defeated when 87 of the 185 legislators present, just short of a majority, voted for it. wOn the second day of the war, only four deputies had voted for a similar motion to put off the hostage issue indefinitely.
While Sunday's vote partly reflected an angry reaction to an Iraqi missile attack on the southwestern Iranian city of Dezful that morning, it also made clear that many deputies still do not see any urgent need to settle the hostage issue.
Although these deputies currently are in the minority, factional allegiances in the Majlis have proved to be fluid.
At present, 228 of the parliament's 270 seats are filled. Some seats have remained vacant since Iran's two-stage parliamentary elections in March and May because fighting at the time in Kurdistan caused the cancellation of voting in districts there. Then, after the elections, the parliament weeded out about a dozen members -- mostly moderates or leftists -- by declaring their elections invalid on various grounds or otherwise forcing them to resign.
The largest discernible group in the Majlis is the generally hard-line Moslem fundamentalist Islamic Republican Party, which claims to have seated 132 members. In addition, the clergy-dominated party claims another 40 allied legislators as part of its "grand coalition." However, membership or other affiliation with the Islamic Republican Party appears to count for little in the parliament, since no group so far has been able to impose much party discipline.
Nor is the proportion of Moslem clergymen to secular parliamentarians much of an indicator, since some laymen have proved more fundamentalist that the clerics.
Rather, the Islamic Republican Party appears to have broken down into factions, of which the most uncompromising on the hostage issue seems to be a small group of about a dozen members led by Hassan Ayat. This group became controversial in Iran because of a reported plan to undermine President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr. Since then, the group has been disavowed by Ayatollah Mohammed Beheshti, who is generally regarded as the overall leader of the Islamic Republican Party and the most powerful figure in parliament.
An important subgroup in the Majlis that straddles factional lines is the seven-man commission formed Oct. 2 to recommend conditions for the hostages' release. Five of the seven are believed to be members of the Islamic Republican Party's Central Committee and most are clergymen.
The head of the commission is Ayatollah Moussavi Khoini, the mentor of the militant Moslem students who seized the American Embassy last Nov. 4. The commission also includes Hojatoleslam Mohammed Ali Khamenei, Tehran's Friday prayers leader, who is believed to belong to the Ayat faction. Khoini and Khamenei are key figures in a group of legislators that resolutely supports the student captors. f
The other members of the commission are Khamenei's brother, Mohammed, also a cleric and a militant on the hostage issue; Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, a fundamentalist clerical member of the Islamic Republican Central Committee; Sheik Mohammed Yazi, a clergyman who taught at the Qom theological school; Ali Akbar Parvaresh, an economist from Isfahan and deputy Majlis speaker; and Kazem Bojnurdi, a provincial governor general who briefly headed the Revolutionary Guards.
Another major parliamentary group, but one that increasingly appears to be losing its identity, consists of about 40 men associated with Bani-Sadr at the time of the elections. It basically includes the relative moderates in the assembly, but appears to have been shut out of any major role in settling the hostage issue.