Many Reformers Ruled Off Iran Ballot
By John F. Burns
The New York Times
January 24, 2000
With less than four weeks remaining before Iran's 38 million voters elect a new Parliament, the conservative Muslim clerics who have held the country in a rigid political grip since 1979 have moved to shore up their power by excluding scores of reformist candidates from the ballot on the grounds that they are insufficiently "Islamic."
Rulings by the Council of Guardians, a 12-member supervisory body of top clerics and Islamic lawyers, have eliminated 402 candidates nominated by reform groups. Reformers see the exclusion of some of their most experienced leaders as an attempt to decapitate their campaign, reduce its electoral appeal and make less likely a reformist landslide that had seemed possible on the basis of other recent elections.
The guardians' council acknowledged this month that it might have made "some mistakes" and agreed to accept appeals, although only a minority are expected to be successful. All the same, with many reform candidates remaining among the thousands of Iranians competing for the 290 parliamentary seats, many believe that the balloting on Feb. 18 could still shift the balance of power against the hard-liners who control decisive centers of authority in the army, the police and the judiciary.
Anticipating disqualifications, the reformers -- Iranians who oppose a strict form of Islamic government -- had swamped the nominating process, daring the hard-liners to order wholesale exclusions. But the Islamic conservatives apparently were too wary -- or too subtle in their exercise of control -- to do so.
Twice in the last three years -- in a presidential election that was won in 1997 by Mohammed Khatami, a reformist cleric, and in countrywide municipal elections last year -- the reformers took nearly 70 percent of the popular vote.
More than half the electorate is under 30, and thus too young to have much, if any, memory of life under Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi, who was overthrown in 1979 by the Islamic leadership that remains in power. But their votes have so far had limited political effect, since even President Khatami, who is 53 years old and an acknowledged admirer of Western political thinkers like Thomas Jefferson, has little real power in face of the conservative clerical hierarchy under Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
By removing the reformers' most popular campaigners, Islamic conservatives appear to be hoping to turn the political tide. But even that may not be enough. The Muslim clergy are increasingly divided. Many who were once hard-liners have joined the reformers, partly because they sense public wrath building against the ayatollahs and mullahs and imams who have become a privileged elite.
If the reformers gain control of Parliament, they could initiate constitutional changes that would return the clerical hierarchy to the role reformist clerics see as appropriate for an Islamic system of government, one of religious guidance but not of direct political control.
Clerical hard-liners might then have to choose between making a fight of it or accepting a political evolution that would send many of them back to the seminaries and mosques.
The United States has an important stake in the outcome of the voting, since President Khatami and the reformers have said that they favor improved relations that could end American economic sanctions and the bitterness that began with the seizure of the American embassy and hostages in November 1979.
The final candidate list will only be announced on Feb. 9, and campaigning is restricted to the last week before the vote. But already, the political temperature is running high. A leading conservative, Ayatollah Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, set the tone in a sermon at the Friday prayers in Tehran 10 days ago, when he called on his followers to use violence, if necessary, to answer reformers' calls for a democratic society. "If someone tells you he has a new interpretation of Islam, hit him in the mouth," he said, according to a Reuters report.
The reformers have responded in terms that, by Iranian standards, are scarcely less incendiary. Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, a 77-year-old cleric who was once the nominated heir of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 revolution, said last week that Ayatollah Khomeini believed that "in this day and age when people are politically aware" it was "impossible to continue ruling by force or imposing authoritarian methods." He added: "No stable system of government can be established unless it is popular."
Ayatollah Montazeri's attack was all the more notable for the fact that Ayatollah Khamenei, the man who displaced him as Ayatollah Khomeini's successor, had placed him under house arrest in 1997 in the holy city of Qum, where he remains under police guard. His tract, sent by fax to the Reuters office in Tehran, went to the heart of Ayatollah Khamenei's claim to dictatorial powers. The country's supreme religious leader, he said, was "not infallible," and under Iran's constitution, had "no right to exercise absolute power."
While key reform leaders have been jailed in recent years, and some killed, and reformist newspapers have endured a relentless campaign of harassment and closure, the conservatives have given the reformers enough leeway to prevent popular restlessness from boiling over. The prime tactician in this appears to have been Ayatollah Khamenei, who has at times made concessions to the reformers, and at other times hit back hard.
The hard-liners appear ready to concede to the reformers a larger bloc than they have in the current Parliament, where they are heavily outnumbered, but not enough to make constitutional changes. The conservatives would prefer to see a conservative umbrella group, the Islamic Coalition Society, have a decisive voice in Parliament. Its election effort is led by a former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who leaned toward the reformers until recently, when he swung back into Ayatollah Khamenei's camp.
Mr. Rafsanjani is now favored for the parliamentary speaker's post that until last fall had been expected to go to Abdullah Nouri, a reformist cleric close to President Khatami. But Mr. Nouri was eliminated from the elections when a special clerical court convicted him of heresy in November and sentenced him to five years in jail. Mr. Nouri had entered candidate's papers from prison, hoping a successful appeal would allow him to join the campaign. But his conviction was upheld on Saturday.
The May 23 Movement, led by Mr. Khatami, had 90 of its 290 candidates for the election stuck down. Among those eliminated were Abbas Abdi, a newspaper columnist best known for having led the 1979 takeover of the American Embassy, and Hamidreza Jalaiepour, editor of a series of reformist newspapers that have been ordered closed by the hard-liners, only to re-open under new titles.
On Friday, Mr. Rafsanjani offered a foretaste of the hard-liners' campaign. In a sermon that was broadcast live on state radio, he said reformers were "unjust" to question such things as Iran's performance during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which an estimated 500,000 Iranians were killed, and the quality of dams built under Islamic rule. "Those who say that every dam Iran has built had a hole in it are committing treason," he said, according to an Associated Press report. "Killing people's confidence is more dangerous than AIDS."