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Iran: Reformists Fire Unprecedented Criticism At Supreme Leader

In Iran, reformist lawmakers have taken the unprecedented step of challenging the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In a letter, the lawmakers ask Khamenei to explain his role in the massive disqualification of reformist candidates ahead of parliamentary elections this week.

Prague, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The protesting deputies ask openly in their letter whether Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was behind the decision to ban reformist candidates from running in parliamentary elections due to be held on 20 February.

Khamenei stepped into the political fray several times over the past month to mediate a mounting conflict between reformist lawmakers and the 12 members of the hard-line Guardians Council. The supreme leader asked the council to review its decision to disqualify thousands of largely reformist candidates.

"Is there any interpretation other than that you approve the illegal actions of the Guardians Council, since you insisted on holding such elections on 20 Feburary?"
But in the end, nearly 2,300 candidates -- including 80 incumbent deputies -- remained off the list, and Khamenei asked both sides to put their grievances behind them.

"Do the members of the Guardians Council dare to resist your orders?" reformists asked in their letter, which was published yesterday. "Or is it that, as rumors say, despite your public statements they were permitted by you to disqualify these people illegally and widely?"

The letter also accuses the supreme leader of heading a political system that fosters human rights abuses. "The popular revolution [in 1979] brought freedom and independence for the country in the name of Islam," the letter reads. "But now you lead a system in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled on in the name of Islam."

Criticizing the supreme leader is very rare in the Islamic republic and is considered a criminal offense. So far there has been no public response from the supreme leader to the letter.

Some observers say the reformist deputies -- who earlier staged a three-week-long sit-in to protest the council's electoral ban -- are now ratcheting up the pressure in an attempt to regain the trust of Iranians disillusioned by the failure of the reformist movement.

The Guardians Council -- whose members are appointed by the supreme leader -- has used its broad veto rights to reject nearly all of the progressive bills approved by the country's reformist parliament. Now, the reformists say the council, with the tacit approval of Khamenei, have abused "the most basic right of the people: to choose and to be chosen."

Tehran-based journalist Arash Ghavidel told Radio Farda that several factors contributed to the reformists' decision to radicalize their protest.

"The first thing is that people did not really support their protest. Secondly, the members of Khatami's cabinet who had threatened to resign [over the disqualifications] did not do so. The third thing was the decision that the elections would take place as scheduled -- the [protesting deputies] wanted to delay the elections by all means possible, but that also did not happen," Ghavidel said.

Despite calls by President Mohammad Khatami and other officials for elections to be postponed to allow time to resolve the disqualification dispute, Khamenei -- who as supreme leader has the final word on all matters related to the Islamic Republic -- said the vote would go ahead as scheduled. The protesters wrote in their letter: "Is there any interpretation other than that you approve the illegal actions of the Guardians Council, since you insisted on holding such elections on 20 Feburary?" The lawmakers also warned of a widening gap between the regime and the people.

But Rouzbeh Mir Ebrahimi, a second journalist in Tehran, told Radio Farda the letter will have little impact on this week's elections. "The deputies who staged the sit-in in parliament were sure themselves that that would not have any results; they just wanted it to be registered in history. And this letter, I think, has also been written for the same purpose -- so that it is registered in history -- and not in order to bring things back to normal. And its only effect is that it will radicalize the political atmosphere inside the country and widen the rift in the reformist camp," Ebrahimi said.

President Khatami has urged Iranians to participate in the elections, warning a low voter turnout will only benefit the hard-liners. But Iran's main pro-reform party, the Participation Front -- led by the president's younger brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, who himself is among the blacklisted candidates -- has said it will not take part in the elections. Analysts predict few Iranians will turn out for the vote.

(Alireza Taheri from Radio Farda contributed to this report.)
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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.