More than a third of the Iranian parliament handed in resignations on Sunday to protest the decision by hard-liners to disqualify hundreds of would-be legislators in upcoming elections.
A letter of resignation was submitted to parliamentary speaker Mahdi Karroubi by reformists who said they could not go ahead with the Feb. 20 elections. It was initially signed by 109 liberal legislators, but later grew to 117 members.
Karroubi said each resignation will be discussed and put to vote in future sessions of the parliament, but he did not say how long that process will take. He insisted that the final decision on the resignations rests with parliament.
Among those who resigned were 80 sitting lawmakers disqualified from running as well as others who had been reinstated.
In a letter read aloud in the 290-seat Majlis, or parliament, liberal lawmaker Rajab Ali Mazrouie said that the result of elections held under restrictions imposed by the hard-line Guardian Council would be a foregone conclusion.
"An election whose result is clear beforehand is a treason to the rights and ideals of the nation," the lawmaker told some 200 legislators attending Sunday's session.
He said such elections would be "illegitimate and unacceptable to the nation."
After the letter was read out, all the resigning lawmakers stood and gathered in the center of the chamber in a show of solidarity.
Emergency meeting called off
The resignations came a day after the pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami, suffering severe back pain, called off an emergency Cabinet meeting that was to deal with the confrontation between reform-minded legislators and the hard-liners of the powerful Guardian Council.
Karroubi said that he and Khatami had began "new efforts" to resolve the crisis, and that they had been holding discussions with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hand-picks most of the clerics on the Guardian Council, and can overrule its decisions.
A dejected Karroubi appealed to Khamenei to resolve the crisis, and accused the Guardian Council of "disrespecting democratic values and having no faith in a popular vote."
In stinging comments directed at the council, Karroubi questioned their loyalty to Islam.
"Are you loyal to Islam if you daily pray, but then trample on the rights of the people," Karroubi, a cleric, said to widespread applause by lawmakers.
Among those attending the session was vice president Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who appeared shocked and was clearly worried. He did not talk to reporters.
Mohsen Mirdamadi, another pro-reform lawmaker who was among the 114 who resigned and was earlier rejected by the Guardian Council, said that the lawmakers would not compromise their democratic beliefs.
"We will not compromise on the most basic rights of the nation, that is, the right to freely choose and be chosen," said Mirdamadi.
'No hope for a solution'
Mohammad Reza Khatami, President Khatami's brother, accused the Guardian Council of killing off Iran's reform movement.
"The Guardian council has killed all opportunities. There is no hope for a solution. We will not participate in this sham election. Even if all those disqualified are reinstated today, there will be no time for competition. Elections on February 20th are illegitimate and under the present structure of the ruling establishment, this is the end of the reform movement," he said.
He said that if hard-liners unilaterally hold the elections, "it will be a full-fledged coup with the help of military forces, and a confirmation that it's illegitimate."
On Saturday, Khatami had suggested his government would call off the vote, which he called undemocratic because hard-line Islamic clerics have disqualified more than 2,400 liberal candidates.
"My government will only hold competitive and free elections ... the parliament must represent the views of the majority and include all (political) tendencies," Khatami said, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
Hours later, doctors confined Khatami to his home for treatment of what a senior presidential aide told The Associated Press was a longtime back problem exacerbated by stress.
The resignations came as Iran kicked off 10 days of celebrations to mark the triumph of its 1979 Islamic revolution that deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and brought a clerical government to power.
The furor over the vote -- Iran's biggest political crisis in years -- started when the 12 clerics of the non-democratic Guardian Council disqualified more than 3,600 of the 8,200 people who filed papers to stand for election.
After reformists' complaints, the council relented and announced the restoration of 1,160 lower-profile candidates late Friday, the deadline for appeals or other changes to the ballot. But the 2,400 prominent reformist politicians and party leaders are still disqualified.
The Guardian Council claimed the barred candidates lacked the criteria to stand for office, even though 80 were already members of parliament.