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Iran: Vetting Exacts Heavy Toll On Reformist Candidates

By Hossein Aryan Majlis seats have frequently proven difficult to fill (Fars) Nearly one in three aspiring candidates has been excluded from Iran's parliamentary elections next month, including current and former officials and a grandson of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Many of the thousands of disqualified candidates are known to support political reforms, echoing past elections in which authorities have silenced dissenting voices long before any voters are allowed to mark their ballots.

But the rules for vetting Iranian parliamentary candidates appear increasingly subject to political interpretation, prompting public accusations that the Guardians Council is abusing its oversight powers in order to meddle in the elections.

Through a tough, complex system of checks and balances, Iranian authorities exercise extensive control over those who want to run for parliament, or Majlis. Candidates with "unproven loyalty" to the Islamic republic are deemed unsuitable and disqualified.

Candidates initially register with the Interior Ministry and are subject to the elaborate vetting system of its election administrative board. The board vets candidates on the basis of reports from the Intelligence Ministry, the police, and the judiciary as well as investigations in the candidates' neighborhoods. Those considered suitable by the board are subsequently vetted by the Guardians Council.

Familiar Pattern

The latest disqualifications are not unprecedented. Ahead of the last Majlis elections, in 2004, the Guardians Council disqualified about one-third of the 8,000-plus prospective candidates, including incumbent legislators. Appeals eventually salvaged about 1,500 of the 3,500 disqualifications.

A similar proportion of the 7,200 registered candidates has been disqualified this time, with former vice presidents, ex-ministers, senior politicians, and current Majlis deputies and the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the father of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, among them.

With weeks to go before the vote, the appeals procedure that ends on March 5 is likely to reinstate some candidates. But they will emerge chastened by the establishment, and with slightly more than a week to campaign ahead of the March 14 polling.

Ali Eshraqi, Khomeini's grandson and a political independent, says he won't appeal to the Guardians Council and regards its decision as "an insult to the Khomeini household."

Describing the disqualification of candidates by the Interior Ministry as "catastrophic," reformist former President Mohammad Khatami said that the trend of disqualification gained momentum in the Guardians Council, a 12-member body of clerics and jurists. Senior officials of the Islamic revolution should be concerned about the extensive disqualification of candidates, Khatami stressed.

The disqualifications have even led to criticism by members of the fundamentalist camp, the right-wing faction loyal to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad known as the "principlists."

In a letter to the Guardians Council, Ahmad Tavakkoli, himself an influential member of the faction and the head of the Majlis Research Center, said, "the narrow-mindedness of some executive officials has undermined some [candidates'] rights and brought them into disrepute." He added that as a result, "the people are going to give the [upcoming] elections a wide berth, which will be detrimental to our achievements in Iran and abroad."

The reformist "Etemad-i Melli" newspaper, citing Masud Soltanifar, a senior official of the pro-reform National Trust Party, recently reported that the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council have disqualified 70 percent of that party's candidates. Questioning the vetting system, Soltanifar said that the "first condition for membership" in the party is "commitment to Islam" and velayat-i faqih (the rule of the supreme jurisprudence), Iran's theocratic system. "Therefore, it is surprising that some candidates who had been elected as legislators on several occasions were disqualified for not being committed to Islam," Soltanifar said.

Meanwhile, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister in the Khatami administration, suggested on the "Norouz" website that it might be better if the Guardians Council simply canceled the elections. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the secretary of the Guardians Council, "and his colleagues will discredit the country less if they forgo the forthcoming elections and -- like the Stalinist communist parties -- announce the names of 290 [Majlis deputies], or establish an advisory Majlis like the one in Saudi Arabia."

IRGC Speaks Out

At the same time that candidates have been vigorously weeded out, senior commanders of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) have been flexing their political muscle and openly attacking reformist rivals of the government.

Major General Hasan Firuzabadi, the chief of the armed forces General Staff who hails from the IRGC, recently vehemently criticized the reformists for seeking a rapprochement with the West and said that the "United States is counting on them." He also said that the people should not vote for those "who are moving toward the West...and, God forbid, those who are the hope of the United States should sit in the Majlis."

On February 8, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC and its Basij militia, asked members of the Basij to back the fundamentalists. He also said that "the fundamentalists are in control of the executive and the legislative branches and, God willing, the judiciary will soon follow the 'principlist' movement."

Likewise, Hasan Taeb, deputy commander of the Basij, has stressed that Basij members should have a "maximum presence" in the elections and promote political understanding so that the best choices are made.

The "Sobh-e Sadeq" weekly, an official IRGC publication, recently lashed out at reformists in the last Majlis and said that "those who were adding grist to the mill of the imperialists...should not be allowed to run for the elections."

In response to the open support of the fundamentalists by senior military commanders, Hasan Khomeini, another grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, has warned against the IRGC's interference in the election. Khomeini has also stressed that military men who wish to follow his grandfather's line should stay out of politics altogether.

Meanwhile, in a statement protesting against the Guardians Council's extensive vetting, ex-legislators from the Assembly of Former Majlis Representatives stated that, in line with Article 99 of the Iranian Constitution, "the Guardians Council is charged with the responsibility of supervising over and not interfering in the elections, and therefore the council's power of approbation is illegal and should be abolished."

The statement was issued on February 8, the same day that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, "The law should not be bypassed," adding that "all are duty-bound to participate in the forthcoming elections and should refrain from making excuses."