TEHRAN, JUNE 26 -- The Iranian government's response to the worst earthquake disaster in the country's history has emerged as a test of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's political strength, particularly his controversial attempt to salvage Iran's war-shattered economy with the help of billions of dollars from the West.

Rafsanjani's decision to accept large-scale humanitarian aid this week from such Western and Arab adversaries as the United States, Britain and Iraq is seen by diplomats and Iranian analysts here as partly an attempt to build public support in Iran for the five-year economic recovery plan for which Rafsanjani won approval earlier this year. The plan passed Iran's parliament after months of debate between Rafsanjani's faction and Islamic radicals in his government who oppose any contact with the West.

"Rafsanjani has pretty much staked his future on his five-year plan, and that means opening to the West," said a Western diplomat here.

The linchpin of Rafsanjani's plan, which is supposed to gear up later this summer, is its dependence on $27 billion in foreign credits for development of Iran's infrastructure and revitalization of factories idled by a decade of war and international isolation.

Islamic radicals led by former interior minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi have sharply criticized the plan for fostering economic interdependence with Western and Arab countries, such as the United States and Saudi Arabia.

While Rafsanjani has suggested in public pronouncements that he, too, regards the West as evil and dangerous, he has also argued that Iran's Islamic revolution would not achieve its full potential unless it draws on Western capital for economic recovery. By accepting massive Western humanitarian aid in the aftermath of last week's devastating earthquake, which Iran's government says killed an estimated 50,000 people, Rafsanjani may hope "to show ordinary people that Westerners are not all monsters," as an Iranian analyst put it. That may help Rafsanjani to isolate his radical opponents on the question of Iran's future economic strategy.

The debate over acceptance of Western and Arab humanitarian aid has continued to heat up since Thursday's earthquake.

The Engish-language Tehran Times, considered close to Rafsanjani, today published its strongest editorial yet in favor of foreign relief assistance, saying the outpouring of aid "once again proved that there are {areas where} the international community can cooperate beyond political considerations."

Kayhan International, a paper considered more hard-line than Rafsanjani's faction, today published a strong editorial criticizing other radical Islamic newspapers for trying to "inject politics {and} hate into the international relief process."

Kayhan's editorial apparently referred to the declaration by a hard-line paper this week that Iranians should cut off the hands of the United States, "even as they reach out to help" with earthquake relief.

The larger debate about economic strategy highlighted by the disagreements over Western humanitarian assistance is much more than philosophical: Iran's economy is reeling and the stability of Rafsanjani's year-old administration may depend on its ability to turn things around quickly.

Iran's government puts out few reliable statistics, but Western analysts estimate that urban unemployment is running as high as 25 percent. Factories have been shut down for lack of imported materials and spare parts, reducing Iranian industry to about one-fourth of capacity.

As they have for more than a decade, oil earnings bolster Iran's economy against collapse, but the recent sharp drop in world oil prices probably will cost Iran $3 billion in desperately needed hard-currency earnings this year, according to Western estimates.

Rafsanjani's strong desire to rebuild Iran's economy -- and bolster his political position -- was made clear by the risks he took during the long fight to win passage of his five-year plan, according to diplomats and Iranians. What is less clear is whether Rafsanjani's efforts to improve relations with his country's adversaries will extend much beyond the economic arena.

Some Iranians and Middle Eastern diplomats said they doubted that some international problems could be solved by improved economic ties between Iran and the West. Those problems include the U.S. hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian Shiite Moslems or the Salman Rushdie affair, which led to a break in relations between Iran and Great Britain when Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called on Moslems to kill the British author over a book considered blasphemous to Islam.

But other Iranians and Western diplomats expressed cautious optimism that growing economic interdependence could ease tensions between Iran and the West -- if countries like the United States follow up humanitarian assistance rendered during the earthquake with other forms of cooperation.

"Americans are not prepared to entertain arguments that Rafsanjani is a pragmatist and needs help to keep extremists away," said one diplomat. "But I think 'pragmatist' is the best word for the man. . . . He's too clever a politician to ignore the possibilities presented by this situation."

Separate from issues such as the U.S. hostages and the Iranian death threats against Rushdie, there have been signs lately that Rafsanjani's government may be prepared to ease tensions with Iraq, Iran's foe in a 1980-88 war.

A 1989 United Nations cease-fire process, by which Iran and Iraq were to exchange tens of thousands of war prisoners and Iraqi troops were to withdraw behind prewar borders, has been stalemated for months. But diplomats said there are signs that Rafsanjani may be prepared to accept direct settlement talks with Iraq outside of the U.N. framework.

{U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar will meet the foreign ministers of Iran and Iraq in Geneva on July 3 to discuss the peace process, the Reuter news agency reported.}

But, as with the issue of Iran's ties with the West, it is unclear whether Rafsanjani would be prepared to build a permanent peace with Iraq or merely try to recover oil fields occupied by Iraqi troops in southwestern Iran.

Last week's earthquake is not expected to have a devastating impact on Iran's teetering economy. Interior Minister Abdullah Nouri has estimated that 50,000 homes were destroyed in the quake, but the basic infrastructure of the stricken northwest -- dams, roads, power and communications lines -- was not badly damaged.

{With officials estimating the death toll at 50,000, Nouri said 99 percent of the bodies of victims have been recovered. Christian Brauner, a relief worker with the West German Red Cross, said the toll could reach 70,000, Reuter reported.}

Adventist Development and Relief International, Earthquake Relief Fund, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, Md. 20904. Call (301) 680-6340.

American Jewish World Service, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, 11th floor, New York, N.Y. 10104. Call (212) 468-7380.

American Red Cross, Iranian Relief Fund, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, D.C. 20013. Call (800) 842-2200.

Americares Foundation, 161 Cherry St., New Canaan, Conn. Call (800) 486-4357 for information.

Baptist World Alliance, Iran Earthquake Fund, 6733 Curran St., McLean, Va. 22101. Call (703) 790-8980.

B'nai B'rith International, Iran Relief Fund, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Call (202) 857-6582.

Catholic Medical Mission Board, 10 W. 17th St., New York, N.Y. 10011. Call (212) 242-7757.

Catholic Relief Services, Iran Earthquake Fund, P.O. Box 17220, Baltimore, Md. 21297-0304. Call (800) SEND-HOPE.

The Iranian Interests Section is accepting cash donations and requesting specific medical supplies and foods. Cash donations can be sent to Iran Quake Relief Assistance, Bank Melli Iran, Account Number 5000, 628 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022. Supplies should be sent to the Iran Quake Relief Center, Interests Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 2209 Wisconsin Ave., Washington, D.C. 20007. Call (202) 625-1449.

Lutheran World Relief, 390 Park Ave. South, New York, N.Y. 10016. Call (212) 532-6350.

Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief, Iranian Relief, Episcopal Church Center, 815 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017. Call (800) 334-7626.

U.S. Committee for UNICEF, 333 E. 38th St., New York, N.Y. 10016. Call (212) 686-5522.

World Concern, P.O. Box 33000, Seattle, Wash. 98133. Call (206) 546-7201.