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Iran: Supreme Leader Dashes Last Hopes For Delay, Appeals In Election Process

Iran's supreme leader has ordered an end to complaints over the disqualification of more than 2,000 candidates for this month's parliamentary elections. The order appears to dash any remaining hopes among reformers to delay the 20 February vote. President Mohammad Khatami says his government will organize the elections as scheduled.

Prague, 9 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dashed the remaining hopes of the country's reformers for further appeals of disqualified candidates or for a delay in this month's parliamentary elections.

On 7 February, in a letter to Khamenei, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi complained that the Guardians Council had reinstated only a few disqualified candidates after Khamenei had called for a review of the bans. They warned that because of the Guardians Council's decision, the elections will be less competitive and that public enthusiasm for the polls will be reduced.

"And the sort of support for this argument is that Khatami is always talking about acting within the constitutional framework and, of course, that's a flawed constitution, which really doesn't allow a democratic system to fully operate."
But in reply, the supreme leader said the importance of holding the elections on schedule outweighs all other issues. Khamenei -- who has the final say in all matters related to the Islamic Republic -- insisted that "for the sake of elections, it is appropriate that certain grievances of the organs against each other are ignored and all join hands in order to fulfill this grave task in the best and healthiest fashion."

The Guardians Council, a hard-line oversight body with broad veto powers, originally barred more than 3,000 pro-reform candidates -- including some 80 sitting deputies -- from running in elections. About 1,000 have since been reinstated. Reformists accuse the conservatives of trying to stage a bloodless coup in order to gain control over parliament.

Many observers say Iranian citizens who are disillusioned with the reform movement may stay away from this month's polls and that conservative candidates may triumph, as they did in city-council elections last year.

Abdol Karim Lahiji is the deputy director of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and the head of the Society for Defending Human Rights in Iran. Lahiji told RFE/RL that current conditions can only lead to unfair elections, the suppression of dissenting voices in parliament and the further degradation of human rights in Iran.

"We saw that [parliament] was always facing rejections from the Guardians Council and, unfortunately, the sixth parliament was not very successful in spreading democracy and human rights, and it acted very weakly. Therefore, it is obvious if the enemies of freedom of expression and human rights will take over power -- I mean, they are already in charge -- but what I mean is that if they also take control of the parliament, then obviously a bigger attack against freedom and people's rights would resume. And even now we can see signs that it is coming," Lahiji said.

For three weeks, deputies in parliament staged a sit-in after the Guardians Council barred the reformist candidates. They have since ended their protest, but many are vowing now to boycott the elections. More than 100 deputies have resigned from parliament in protest to the disqualifications.

Iran's supreme leader has said any resignations are contrary both to the law and to Islamic principles and invite serious punishment because they represent a disruption of the election process.

Khatami -- who had previously vowed to hold elections only if they were competitive, free, and fair -- says his government will organize the polls after all.

Iran's main reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Party, says it will not participate in the elections. The party is headed by the president's younger brother and deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Khatami, who is also among the blacklisted candidates.

Yesterday in Tehran, several hundred pro-reform students also called for a boycott of the elections. The students called on Khatami to resign, saying he has been indecisive and has backed down due to conservative pressure.

William Samii is an RFE/RL regional analyst for Southwest Asia and an expert on Iranian affairs. Samii says there are two ways to look at Khatami's stance in Iran's current political crisis. "One is to say that basically he's always been part of the system, and you can't expect him to do anything different," he said. "And the sort of support for this argument is that Khatami is always talking about acting within the constitutional framework and, of course, that's a flawed constitution, which really doesn't allow a democratic system to fully operate. It gives all the trappings of democracy but none of the real power to elected officials."

He added: "The other side is to say that President Khatami is just protecting the lives of people who might get hurt. He realizes that if there are mass protests, if people rally in the streets, hold illegal rallies, there is a very strong chance that either the Basij, which is part of the Revolutionary Guards, [or other vigilante groups] will come out and fight with these people."

Observers say the current crisis represents a major setback for the reformists. But Samii says the reform movement itself will continue. "I think the desire for improvement, the desire for changing the system, is inevitable," he said. "It has maybe reached a bump in the road, but with generational change -- as the people who have direct experience in the revolution, the people who have a direct benefit in the current system -- as they get older, as they die off, you will see a new generation coming into the system. And so, yes, the reform movement has encountered some difficulties, but I don't think it's right to say that it's at an end."
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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.