Showdown over democracy's boundaries in Iran

The main reform party said Monday it won't field candidates in Feb. 20 vote after thousands disqualified.

A quarter century after launching its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran is facing a political showdown between elected and unelected lawmakers that is set to redefine the parameters of democratic rule in Iran.

Already, a string of unprecedented acts has made the internal crisis one of the most severe in Iran's modern history. Analysts say that only intervention by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can now end the deadlock between reformist and conservative camps.

The main reform party announced Monday that it would boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, but stopped short of asking Iranians not to vote.

"We have no hope that a fair, free, and legitimate election can be held on February 20. So in the current circumstances we cannot participate," said Mohammad Reza Khatami, head of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, Monday. If the vote were held then, he added, "It would not be a reformist government anymore."

Nearly one third of the 290 members of parliament resigned on Sunday after the unelected hard-line Guardian Council reinstated 1,160 reform candidates - but upheld rejections of 2,400 others over the weekend.

However, hard-liners held their ground. Iran's judiciary has suggested that it will prosecute those who prevent the vote. Rumors are rife in Tehran that some military and paramilitary vigilante organs loyal to hard-liners are preparing to conduct the poll if the government of reform-minded President Mohamed Khatami refuses to do so.

"Both sides are completely blocking each other, and the only one with the ability and authority to unblock them is the supreme leader," says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of the English-language Iran News. "He's going to have to come up with a solution befitting Solomon the wise."

What that solution may be is becoming increasingly unclear, as political tension rises. Celebrations of the revolution's 25th anniversary have been overshadowed by the electoral crisis, in which reformists - who have watched their powerful popular support erode in recent years, as the reform agenda was checked by hard-liners - appear to have been engineered out of contention in the vote.

While the Guardian Council last Friday issued its final list and refused to approve a delay in the vote, it scratched the names of several incumbent deputies who had already been approved to run, because they sympathized with more than 80 other reform deputies banned from taking part. The Guardian Council is made up of 12 appointed clerics and Islamic jurists.

MP Mohsen Mirdamadi, who was beaten by hard-line vigilantes during a speech last December, announced the party's decision. "They want to cover the ugly body of dictatorship with the beautiful dress of democracy," Mr. Mirdamadi said in a speech broadcast live on Iran Radio. "We had no choice but to resign."

Deputies have held a three-week sit-in inside the parliament building. However, many Iranians have remained indifferent to their plight, due to anger that the reform camp has delivered little of their promised social change over the past seven years.

"Now [politics] is so completely polarized," says a veteran Iranian observer in Tehran who asked not to be named. The conservatives are "happy and singing, because they think they will soon control the [parliament], and the presidency after that, in elections for 2005," says the observer. But he notes that even some conservative columnists are questioning whether the complete defeat of the reform movement is wise.

"The conservative strategy before was to drive a wedge among the reformists, to tame the opposition," he says. "Now the attitude is absolutist and heavy handed."

Iran's press is steeped with analysis about the crisis, with conservative papers insisting on a vote as scheduled. Like most reform newspapers, however, Sharq struck a gloomy note, saying that accepting the "imposed" conditions of the Guardian Council "is ultimately the realization of the slogan: 'Death to reformists.'"

But the reformists are not going quietly. President Khatami warned on Sunday of the risks of an undemocratic outcome of the crisis. "Those who are tuned to the will of the nation will survive and those who stand against the people are doomed," he said, quoted by Iran's official news agency.

The Guardian Council has yet to rule on a second request by the interior ministry, tasked with organizing the vote, to postpone balloting. Student groups are asking for a permit to protest on Wednesday; such rallies have sparked antiregime clashes.

"This is a clear indication of the defeat of the attempt to reform the Islamic Republic legally," says the veteran observer. "Maybe from now on, there could be a radicalization."

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