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Iran: Reformist Deputies Continue Sit-In Protest At Parliament

Reformist deputies have rejected a request by the Iranian president for parliamentarians to end their sit-in protest. The deputies are demonstrating against a decision last week by the conservative Guardians Council to bar thousands of candidates from running in next month's parliamentary election. One deputy has already resigned in protest and other deputies have said they will follow suit.

Prague, 14 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- About 90 Iranian reformist deputies today rejected a request by President Mohammad Khatami to end a sit-in protest in parliament. Lawmakers said Khatami told them the crisis could be resolved through negotiations with the conservative Guardians Council.

The council announced on 11 January that it would disqualify about half of the 8,200 candidates hoping to contest parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 February. Many current pro-reform deputies in parliament are among those barred from running.

Reform deputy Mohsen Armin confirmed today's meeting with Khatami and said the protesting deputies were in agreement to continue the demonstration.

The deputies said that beginning 17 January, they will engage in "political fasting," a term religion-oriented deputies use to refer to a limited hunger strike. They also plan gradually to resign from their posts in parliament. Reformist lawmaker Ahmad Moradi was the first to announce his resignation. He said he's stepping down to defend the people's rights.

Khatami today criticized the Guardians Council's decision to bar many reform candidates from running in future elections and said the right to free elections must be observed. Many members of Khatami's government, including four vice presidents and several ministers, have threatened to resign if the election ban is not reversed. State governors have issued a similar warning.

A mass resignation of reformist officials would certainly present the Islamist establishment with a crisis of legitimacy. But Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science in Tehran University, says many people do not take the resignation threats seriously. "Not many people believe that the ministers and the entire cabinet would resign or the governors would resign. Many people regard this as a threat rather than a serious course of action that the reformists might take," Zibakalam said.

The four-day sit-in in the parliament has so far drawn little support from political activists, student groups, or Iranian citizens, who have grown disillusioned by the failure of reformist politicians to fulfill their promises.

Zibakalam says the crisis in Iran is seen by the general public as just another political struggle between two factions rather than a fight for democracy and political freedom. He adds that many Iranians think pro-reform deputies and other officials are fighting more for their own political survival.

He says this is because in the past, when there were other disqualifications by the Guardians Council, "when we had writers, journalists, and political dissidents being thrown into prison, we didn't see much support, we didn't see any sit-ins, we didn't see any protest, we didn't see any political fasting by the reformist deputies, we didn't see any threats of resignation. But the fact that this time this is happening, many people think that the deputies, the governors, they're all after their own political ends, political interests."

Even though the Guardians Council is standing firm on its decision to ban the candidates, the pro-reform speaker of the Iranian parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, said today that there is still hope in negotiations with the hard-line watchdog. The Guardians Council has said that it rejected the candidates because many of them do not believe in Islam. But Karrubi today strongly criticized this claim, noting that in one province they even rejected a prayer leader.

President Khatami has also called for a revision of the list of the disqualified. Yesterday, he expressed hope that the Guardians Council would reverse its decision. "Fortunately, there is another phase -- and that's the 'esteemed' Guardians Council itself; the Guardians Council feels responsible, people who care are part of it, they take into consideration both the country's national interest and respect for the law," he said.

Many observers say the crisis will be defused in the coming weeks and that a compromise deal will be made with the council in order to enable some of the reformist deputies to run in the forthcoming election.

Pro-reform journalist Mohammah Sadegh Javadi Hessar, whose candidacy for the elections was rejected by the Guardians Council, believes in that case, the conservatives will make sure they emerge as winners of the elections. "Some suggest that if they will lift the ban and qualify some of the reformists for running in the elections, first of all, they will do it at a date when there will be no time left for campaign. [And] secondly, they will qualify people who would have a small chance of getting enough votes in order to be elected," Hessar said.

The Guardians Council is due to make a final ruling on the disqualifications by the end of the month.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.