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Iran: Interior Ministry Wants Elections Delayed To Resolve Crisis

Iran's Interior Ministry is calling on the powerful Guardians Council to postpone the country's 20 February parliamentary elections. The ministry says a delay is needed in order to resolve a dispute over the council's mass disqualification of reformist and moderate candidates -- a decision the 12-member body of clerics and Islamic jurists is set to review by the end of the day.

Prague, 30 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The next few days may prove crucial as Iran rides out one of its worst political crises.

By the end of today, the 12-member Guardians Council -- an unelected body with broad oversight powers -- will have completed a reviewed of its disqualification of more than 3,000 reformist and moderate candidates, including some 80 sitting deputies, for February's scheduled parliamentary elections.

The disqualification has spurred a parliamentary sit-in now in its third week, with many deputies threatening to resign and boycott the elections to the 290-seat parliament if the hard-line oversight body refuses to reverse its ruling.

"The student movement cannot participate in elections that are solely window-dressing for democracy in the Islamic Republic."
One of the protesters, reformist lawmaker Hossein Loghmanian, told Radio Farda correspondent Jamshid Zand the parliamentarians are not going to back down from their demands: "The people and the MPs are resisting. As one of them, I can tell you it's not possible that we will back off. The rights of the people are the most important thing for us. We cannot betray the people; we will defend the rights of the people as much as we can."

The Guardians Council has already reinstated more than 900 of the would-be candidates, heeding the call of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But none of the incumbents or top reformist candidates is reportedly among them.

A spokesman for the Guardians Council said yesterday that its review was continuing and that the body would not give in to "pressure and propaganda." Shaul Bakhash is a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University in Virginia and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He says a final decision on the candidates' list may prove a dilemma for both the conservative Guardians Council and the reformist MP protesters.

"Will the Majlis [parliament] deputies who are now protesting be willing to stand for office if, let us say, three-quarters of those disqualified are reinstated and the rest remain disqualified? And if they agree to stand [for] office in such circumstances, how will this look to the public, how will it look to their colleagues? So I think the reformists have a real dilemma," he said. "And the conservatives on the Council of Guardians have a real dilemma as well, because a backing-off will be seen as a retreat for them, and insisting on disqualification of a large number of deputies who clearly should be allowed to run will delegitimize the future parliament and probably lead to a very, very low turnout in the coming election."

Iran's provincial governors -- who are appointed by the country's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami -- have warned the mass disqualifications make it impossible for free and fair elections to be held.

The Interior Ministry, fearing the dispute will not be defused in time for the scheduled 20 February elections, has called for the vote to be postponed -- despite vows by Khatami and parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi that the elections will be held as planned.

Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- who remains a highly influential figure in the country's political arena -- said during today's Friday prayers that elections should proceed as scheduled.

Rafsanjani said "the whole world is carefully watching Iran's elections," and "if there is a massive turnout, then the enemies of the revolution will be frustrated." Observers say it is highly unlikely the elections will be postponed.

On 28 January, Iran's main pro-reform student group, the Office for Fostering Unity, called for a nationwide boycott of the elections. A statement issued by the group said there is "no justification" for people to participate in this election.

Abdollah Momeni, one of the student leaders, spoke to RFE/RL. "The student movement cannot participate in elections that are solely window-dressing for democracy in the Islamic Republic, and that are basically devoid of democratic benefits for the system and for the people," he said.

Students say they are disillusioned with the reformists, who have been unable to fulfill their promises to liberalize the country, and even failed to back the students in pro-democracy demonstrations.

Momeni says his group will likely proceed with the boycott even if all the disqualified candidates are reinstated. On 2 February, Iran's main reformist political party, the Participation Front, is set to decide whether it will cooperate with the parliamentary vote. Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of President Khatami and the head of the Participation Front, today accused hard-liners of attacking democratic gains and undermining Iran's Islamic foundations.

So far, most ordinary Iranians have shown little interest in the standoff between parliament and the Guardians Council. Alex Vatanka, a country risk analyst with the Jane's Defence group of publications, says the reformists do not want to see a mass mobilization of the public.

"That is a development that they would be extremely unlikely to control and that could essentially mean the demise of the system. Because, I mean, that's when things can easily get out of control and that's why Khatami keeps repeating the same message that 'We will find a solution to this.' They don't want mass popular mobilization because they know -- as anybody else who knows Iran would know -- that the system can crumble easily. This is not a system that is glued together firmly." The Guardians Council decision is due to be announced late tonight.
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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.