Sweeping moves by Iranian hard- liners to disqualify reform opponents before next month's key elections are sparking a political crisis that could lead to the resignation of President Mohamad Khatami's government.
The unelected Guardian Council, which vets all political candidates, rejected nearly half of Iran's 8,200 parliamentary hopefuls over the weekend. Failure to reverse the action could bring Iran's messy political conflict to a head well before the Feb. 20 vote.
"If the government becomes impotent in securing the legitimate freedoms of the nation, it loses its legitimacy, and then, whether it dissolves itself or not, it is automatically dissolved," said Vice President Mohamed Satarifar, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Reformist members of parliament said that about 12 top government officials are ready to quit if the decision is not overturned, Reuters reported. The MPs said the list included four of Iran's six vice-presidents and six ministers.
The crisis is turning into a political test for Mr. Khatami and reformers, who have watched their popularity dissipate, and have fumed at conservative predictions of victory next month.
While reformists decry a "civilian coup" - dozens of the 80 incumbent deputies barred from running again have staged a sit-in at the 290-seat parliament since Sunday - some say the unprecedented scale of disqualifications may bolster the flagging reform cause.
"This is a very good gift for the reformists," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a former editor of a string of closed reform newspapers, who teaches political sociology at Tehran University.
Top liberal writers and intellectuals met Monday night at offices of the chief reform party, Musharekat, to discuss a unified strategy. "It's a new wave of movement," says Mr. Jalaiepour in a telephone interview, though not likely to change reformist fortunes.
"The 'rational' conservatives are against [the candidate disqualifications], but they are passive," says Jalaiepour. "These days hard-liners are very active and at the core of power, so they do what they wish. They suppose that democracy comes from the West and is not a product of Islam, and use that interpretation to justify undemocratic behavior."
President Khatami has vowed to "protest" through "legal channels," methods he does not see as "compatible with the principles of religious democracy."
But a letter from him apparently read out during the parliament sit-in, and reported in the Etemad reform newspaper Tuesday, suggested that he may step down if the crisis is not resolved. Regional governors have already said they will step down if a solution is not found.
"I will wait for one week so that things go back to normal," the newspaper reported Khatami's letter as stating. "Otherwise, if elections cannot be held, I will step down from my position."
Khatami's pro-reform League of Combatant Clerics saw dangers beyond Iran's border, saying on Monday: "(The conservatives) are paving the way for enemies who want to show the Islamic Republic is a despotic state."
Ayatollah Khamenei - who has final say over all issues - told state radio he would not act unless the issue "goes beyond legal methods."
"We are heading for trouble, because this is no way to deal with people," says Shahriar Rouhani, an analyst at Tehran's Azad University. "It's a dangerous game [for conservatives] to play, because of the lack of trust of the people."
The sweeping disqualifications coincide with deepening popular disillusion with the reform camp, which handily won control of the parliament, or Majlis, in 2000 for the first time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
But unelected conservative bodies have blocked reform efforts at every turn. The current crisis could help foster renewed sense of purpose.
"If [conservatives] don't show some flexibility, it will automatically mobilize the opposition, and many are quite militant anyway," says Mr. Rouhani, a physicist who was active in the early years of the revolution. "They are going to be bunched together, and will not - to say the least - be very peaceful."
Even Iran's supreme religious leader, the conservative Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, was reportedly surprised at the number of rejections. Some 900 of the 1,700 hopefuls for Tehran seats alone are not allowed to run.
Among those barred were the president's brother and reform leader, Mohamad Reza Khatami, and Behzad Nabavi, both vice-speakers of parliament.
The Guardian Council has disqualified candidates in the past - though never on this scale - and has used its mandate for guaranteeing that all legislation and candidates meets certain Islamic standards, as an instrument for continuing hard-line control.
But one of the creators of the council, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri - a strident critic of the regime - told reformers in a letter that conservatives today are misusing it for political ends. "I am really sad when I see this Guardian Council has been transformed into a body that violates the nation's rights and disqualifies these people."