Iran religious leader skirts political battle

TEHRAN, IRAN — TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, refused to intervene yesterday in a confrontation between the conservative and reformist camps after a religious authority barred thousands of pro-reform candidates from running in parliamentary elections.

"Once all legal steps have been exhausted, if we arrive at a sensitive situation which demands a decision, there can be no doubt that I will intervene and give my opinion," Khamenei said at a meeting with the country's governor generals, state-run television reported.


"We must respect the law and act according to it, because a bad law is better than lawlessness and violation of the law," he said. "Both sides are saying that they have acted according to the law, but we cannot accept these explanations. The law has defined responsibilities of each body."

A hard-line Islamic religious authority, the Guardian Council, rejected nearly half of the 8,200 candidates who had registered to run in parliamentary elections Feb. 20. Among them were nearly 80 members of parliament, including the brother of President Mohammad Khatami.


The council has vetted candidates in past elections but this is the first time it has eliminated such a large number of sitting members of parliament, many of whom had won seats by large margins. In some cities, only one conservative candidate has been allowed to run.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, who was visiting Iran yesterday, expressed concern in a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi over the process of democracy in Iran.

"The fairness of an election is not only on the day of the election," he said. "The process should be fair."

Nearly 60 reformist parliamentarians continued a sit-in they began Sunday in parliament and warned that they will take their actions farther if the decision is not reversed.

"We had said that we will not participate in a show election, and if our protest does not bear any results we will not be able to participate in the elections," said Ali Shakourirad, one of the members of parliament who was at the sit-in. "We want all candidates who have been eliminated illegally to be allowed to run."

The sit-in is not widely supported by Iranians, in part because the reformers have lost much of their luster in recent years. Most people accuse Khatami and his followers of failing to capitalize on their broad public support to take bold actions to push through political and economic reforms.

Leaders of the student movement, who had said that they will not encourage people to go to the polls, met with the reformists in parliament in a sign of solidarity but said they would not take further actions.

"Unfortunately, members of parliament did not object to the widespread rejection of candidates until their own turn came, but we will support any action that is against undemocratic means," said Mehdi Aminzadeh, one of the leaders of the student movement known as the Office for Fostering Unity.


"Reformers were faced with obstacles during their tenure, but we believe that they did not have a clear plan and were not firm enough to force the establishment to give in to people's demand," he said.