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Iranians deserve fair elections


POLITICAL REFORMERS in Iran are heading for a showdown with the conservative clerics who rule the Islamic state. A third of the 290-member parliament took the bold step of resigning this week and refusing to participate in the Feb. 20 elections. Although courageous, theirs is an uphill fight against a group of autocratic hard-liners who have commandeered the electoral process.

In a bid to ameliorate the crisis, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered an independent review of thousands of legislative candidates who were barred from running for office. But it has been exposed as a sham. The Guardian Council, an unelected 12-member panel of conservative clerics and lawyers, intervened, and only 51 new candidates were reinstated. The council showed its arrogance - and cowardice. Although a blow to reformist candidates, the panel's action is an acknowledgment that conservatives can't compete in a fair and free election.

Despite big wins at the polls since 1997, reformist politicians have been frustrated in their efforts to ease the hard-liners' grip on their daily lives. The clerics continue to exert their will, closing newspapers, jailing dissidents and cracking down on political speech. Their vehicle often has been the Guardian Council, which has veto power over parliamentary actions. The present dispute began with the council's decision to strike nearly half of the 8,200 legislative candidates from the ballot. Iranians saw the move for what it was - an attempt to fix the outcome. Regional governors refused to staff the polls, and students in Tehran planned street demonstrations.

The reformist lawmakers' willingness to confront the hard-liners in such a public way reflects a tactical shift and a gradual consolidation of opposition forces. It's a political evolution that one day may rival the 1979 revolt that brought the mullahs to power. But now Iranians have to decide whether to join the reformers in boycotting the February election. They should insist on free and fair elections and an Iran with more than nuclear ambitions and a taste for terrorism. The democracy movement must not be deterred.

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