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Iran: Election Crisis in Iran Continues to Escalate

In an emergency cabinet meeting last night, Iranian government officials said now is not the right time for elections. Earlier yesterday, more than 100 parliament deputies tendered their resignations to Iran's speaker of parliament. The move came in protest of the decision by the conservative Guardians Council to prevent some 2,000 moderate and pro-reform candidates from running in the parliamentary vote scheduled later this month. The deputies stepping down said they will not participate in the vote, which they called undemocratic and illegal.

Prague, 2 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Guardians Council has not yet officially reacted to the government's call to delay parliamentary elections. But deputy Reza Zavareyi of the conservative oversight body said today that Iran's constitution prohibits vote postponements except in the case of war or military occupation.

During an emergency cabinet meeting last night -- the same day the country began celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the 1979 revolution -- Iranian Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said the country's governors had concluded current conditions are not suitable for elections. The cabinet agreed the country should proceed with the scheduled 20 February parliamentary elections only if the elections can be free, fair, and competitive.

"As you have now seen, the elections that are about to be held are already pretty much discredited -- the worst-case scenario as far as democracy in Iran is concerned."
Iran's reformist camp has so far proved unsuccessful in demanding a reversal of the conservative ban of more than 2,000 pro-reform and moderate candidates from running in the parliamentary vote.

The conservative Guardians Council, which has the right to veto candidates, has already rejected a previous call by the interior minister to postpone the vote. Observers don't expect that to change this time around.

Adding to the political crisis, more than 100 pro-reform lawmakers yesterday handed in their resignations, protesting the mass disqualification of candidates. In a statement issued late yesterday, the deputies said the vote must be postponed, even if all the disqualified candidates are reinstated in the next few days, in order to assure candidates have "the time and opportunity to take part in a sound and fair competition." They also said they will not participate in what they called a "sham election."

The resignations come amid a parliamentary sit-in protest by reformist deputies that is now entering its fourth week.

With talks between reformists and conservatives deadlocked, analysts now say that only Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who has the final say in all matters related to the Islamic Republic -- can defuse what is amounting to one of the country's worst political crises.

Alex Vatanka is a country risk analyst with the Jane's Defense group of publications. "I think most people at this moment agree that there will be a late intervention by the supreme leader, who will come in and surprise everyone by somehow brokering a deal between the [Guardians] Council and the reformist-dominated parliament, by allowing probably over 50 percent, if not a [larger] majority, of the disqualified candidates to run," he said.

The supreme leader has already intervened in the crisis once, calling on the Guardians Council to review its initial decision to ban some 3,000 potential candidates from running. But the hard-line body -- half of whose members are directly appointed by the supreme leader -- reinstated only one-third of the rejected candidates.

Parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who had continued to express hope the council might reverse its decision, yesterday called on the supreme leader to once again intervene.

In another development, a conservative official -- Hojatoleslam Ahmad Azimizadeh, the head of the electoral supervisory board of Tehran -- involved in the disqualification process said the deputies' mass resignation can be interpreted as an attempt to interfere with the electoral process, and as such is subject to prosecution.

Several of Iran's cabinet ministers, deputy ministers, and all of Iran's provincial governors have also threatened to resign if the Guardians Council does not lift its ban on the candidates. But the conservatives have said elections will proceed as scheduled regardless of protests.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and one of the 2,000 banned candidates, said yesterday that elections now would amount to "a full-fledged coup with the help of military forces." His party, the Islamic Iran Participation Party, the main pro-reform party, announced today it will boycott the elections.

The Iranian public has so far shown little interest in the escalating political crisis. Many Iranians who in the past voted for reformist candidates have grown disillusioned, saying parliament has done little to push through needed changes in the country.

In local elections last year, less that 20 percent of eligible voters turned out, and it was the conservatives who emerged victorious. Many observers say the scenario may repeat itself this month -- something, according to Alex Vatanka, that could deal Iran's reform movement a severe blow. "As you have now seen, the elections that are about to be held are already pretty much discredited -- the worst-case scenario as far as democracy in Iran is concerned," he said. "The way I look at it is, if you have a similar situation as you had with the local elections [last year], that would be bad for the evolution of reform in Iran because that would pretty much put everything in the hands of the conservatives."
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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.