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Iranian leader moves to defuse election crisis

Iran's supreme leader on Wednesday moved to defuse a crisis in parliament, ordering hard-liners to reconsider their ban on several thousand reform candidates.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Seeking to defuse a political crisis, Iran’s supreme leader ordered hard-liners Wednesday to reconsider their disqualification of more than 3,000 pro-reform electoral candidates.

The bar on more than 80 liberal lawmakers from running for re-election sparked outrage from the reformist-led parliament, warnings that President Mohammad Khatami’s government may resign and criticism from the United States and the European Union.

Earlier Wednesday, lawmakers rejected a call by Khatami to abandon a sit-in protests they have been holding over the past four days at parliament — a sign of their mistrust that the pro-reform president had the power to win a reversal of the disqualifications.

A lifting of the bans would be a victory for the liberal’s protests. But the intervention from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei highlights the ultimate power he holds, in contrast to elected officials like Khatami.

Khamenei met on Wednesday with the Guardian Council, the hard-liner body responsible for the disqualifications, and told its members to reconsider.

“The basis of decision should be that (candidates) are authorized to run unless it’s proven otherwise,” he told the members, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

He urged the members to use only “logical and common” grounds for disqualification. “The Guardian Council must definitely and carefully reconsider the qualification of hopefuls,” the agency quoted Khamenei as saying.

Khamenei holds ultimate say in all matters in Iran and is generally seen as the leader of the hard-line clerics who have repeatedly stymied attempts at reform. But he has reined in hard-liners in the past to avert a destabilizing political clash.

The Guardian Council, whose members are chosen by Khamenei, disqualified about 3,000 people, including 80 sitting reformist lawmakers, from running in the Feb. 20 elections. Hard-liners’ control of unelected bodies like the Guardian Council, as well as the judiciary and armed forces, has enabled them to block reform efforts, despite the liberals’ hold on parliament.

Reformists refuse to back down

Reformists denounced the disqualifications as an attempt by hard-liners to break their power in the legislature. On Wednesday, they shrugged off their ally Khatami’s call for them to stop their sit-in, and they began a series of resignations as a protest.

“Khatami is sincere, and will do his best, but his promise to reverse the situation is not sufficient,” said Hossein Ansarirad, a reformist cleric who was among those disqualified for running in elections.

“Everything is at stake in this country through the illegal behavior of hard-liners. The time has come to resist in the strongest manner,” he said.

The first legislator to resign, Ahmad Mouradi, said it was “the least I could do to voice my protest on behalf of the people I represent.” Mouradi was not planning to stand in the elections.

The disqualifications have drawn unusual condemnation of the Guardian Council. “It’s deplorable that such persons are ruling in our country. Either they have lost their senses altogether or, if they haven’t, they are definitely traitors,” said reformist lawmaker Jafar Kambouzia.

The elections are seen as a crucial test for Iran’s reformers, whose popularity has waned because of their perceived failure to deliver on promises of liberalization.

The sit-ins have drawn up to 90 legislators for about five hours a day. Khatami asked them to halt the protests, promising to try to reverse the disqualifications.

However, in a meeting shortly afterward, the legislators “unanimously voted to continue their sit-in until they achieve their goals,” said lawmaker Mohsen Armin.

Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president’s younger brother and the leader of the largest reform party in parliament, said the protest would continue because there was no guarantee that the disqualified candidates would be reinstated.

“More lawmakers will resign gradually over the next few days,” added Khatami, who is a deputy speaker of parliament and one of the disqualified.

Ali Tajernia, another disqualified reformist, said lawmakers could resort to fasts and hunger strikes if the disqualifications were not overturned. It was not clear if those options were discussed at Wednesday’s meeting.