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Iran: Guardians Council Rejects Electoral Reform Bill As Crisis Escalates

Iran's Guardians Council has rejected an electoral reform bill aimed at limiting the grounds for disallowing candidates in parliamentary elections. Protesting deputies say they are considering their next moves in discussions with the government of President Mohammad Khatami.

Prague, 26 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's political crisis continues to escalate as protesting deputies threaten to resign en masse or to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled for 20 February.

The threats follow the rejection by the Guardians Council of an emergency reform bill passed by parliament yesterday. The legislation was aimed at limiting the grounds for disallowing candidates in polls.

Disqualified deputy Mohsen Armin, who is the deputy head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Relations Committee, says the Guardians Council has left no possibility for a free election. He said: "The next move of the protesting deputies to this clear violation of civil rights would be to resign from parliament."
"[The pro-reform MPs] seem to be very determined to carry on fighting their corner, and their main objective is to get the people behind them. But the people have been so reluctant so far to get involved in this fight between the two wings of the same system."

The Guardians Council's decision to reject some 3,000 candidates from the February polls -- including about 80 sitting deputies -- has plunged Iran into one of its worst political crises. Deputies have been holding a sit-in for more than two weeks, and many top governmental officials are threatening to resign.

The Guardians Council is an unelected 12-member body of clerics and Islamic jurists with broad powers to oversee parliament. The emergency reform bill passed by parliament yesterday included two amendments aimed at curbing the veto power of the Guardians Council over election candidates. The first amendment would have prevented the council from disqualifying incumbent MPs or candidates approved for past elections -- unless they have been convicted of criminal offenses.

The second amendment would have required the Guardians Council to approve anyone deemed by 10 local trustees as being devoted to Islam and the establishment. The Guardians Council says it rejected many of the candidates because they were un-Islamic. Reformists believe the massive elimination of pro-reform and moderate candidates was politically motivated. Guardians Council head Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati says that an average of 17 candidates for each parliament seat adequately assures competition.

Reza Taghizadeh is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and an analyst on Iranian political affairs. He says the protesting deputies have been trying -- unsuccessfully -- to win the support of the public, which so far seems to be paying little attention to the confrontation between the two factions of Iran's establishment.

"[The pro-reform MPs] seem to be very determined to carry on fighting their corner, and their main objective is to get the people behind them. But the people have been so reluctant so far to get involved in this fight between the two wings of the same system. The other objective they have, from my point of view, is to get [President Mohammad Khatami] behind them," Taghizadeh said.

Khatami has criticized the bans but has said he hopes for a negotiated compromise. In a statement on 24 January, Khatami and the speaker of parliament, Mehdi Karrubi, called for a "full review" of the Guardians Council decision in order to have elections that are fair, free, and open to competition. They said the review should take place as soon as possible.

So far, some 400 of the rejected candidates have been reinstated. The Guardians Council decided to review the disqualifications after a call from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khatami has said he has no plans to resign, despite such threats from several ministers and more than 70 mid-ranking government officials.
Taghizadeh says Khatami's attempts to end the political deadlock have so far been ineffective. "He tried to be seen as a second-rate mediator, to strike a balance between the right-wing challengers and the defending parliament in control of the pro-reform elements, but he hasn't done anything more than that. And everybody knows that this wouldn't work. The right-wing establishment has no ear to hear what he says," Taghizadeh said.

The Guardians Council is set to complete its review of disqualified candidates by 30 June. The council is then due to release the final list of eligible candidates on 12 February, a little more than a week before the elections. Reformists say such delaying tactics will deprive candidates of the time to conduct proper campaigns.

Taghizadeh says it is likely the conservatives will achieve their goals. "The final decision has been made on their side to control the next parliament, and they're not going to change their minds. There is no sign on the horizon for any commentator to change his mind and say, yes, [the conservatives] would have a different approach to the case. They have made their mind up and, based on a cool calculation, they know what they are going to achieve. And it seems that they are going to be the final winner of this fight," Taghizadeh said.

Meanwhile, reformist deputies are vowing to continue their protest. As one pro-reform deputy, Ali Shakouri Rad, said today, the Guardians Council's rejection of their final bid has created a new situation in which lawmakers feel more determined than ever to push forward.
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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 one of the authors 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.