Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Khamenei orders election ban rethink

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Khamenei orders election ban rethink: "Khamenei orders election ban rethink

Robert Tait in Tehran
Tuesday May 24, 2005
The Guardian
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last night made a dramatic intervention in next month's presidential election by ordering a powerful religious watchdog to re-assess its decision to bar more than 1,000 candidates, including leading reformers.
The move followed threats of a boycott of the June 17 poll by reformists furious at the decision by the council of guardians, an unelected body of conservative clerics and judges, to disqualify all but six of 1,014 aspiring candidates.

In a blow to campaigners pushing for an easing of Iran's strict Islamic system, the council had ruled out Mostafa Mo'ein, a former higher education minister, and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, plus other leftwingers and 89 women candidates.
It approved only the candidacies of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, four hardline former revolutionary guard commanders and a cleric who was a close ally of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who led Iran's Islamic revolution.

But in a decree issued through state television, Mr Khamenei - himself a hardliner - questioned the appropriateness of the decision.

"It's appropriate that all individuals in the country be given the choice from various political tendencies," he said. "Therefore, it seems that [the] qualification of Mr Mo'ein and Mr Mehralizadeh [should] be reconsidered."

Mr Khamenei's unexpected concession to reformists is almost certainly dictated by fears of a damagingly low voter turnout, leaving the clerical regime open to the charge that it lacks democratic legitimacy.

It may also be calculated to reduce the electoral strength of Mr Rafsanjani, the frontrunner, whose candidacy Mr Khamenei opposes. Despite calls for a boycott, many reform-minded voters were expected to vote for Mr Rafsanjani to prevent a hardliner being elected. Mr Khamenei is ideologically opposed to the candidacy of Mr Mo'ein, who has promised to release political prisoners and said he would consider suspending Iran's nuclear programme. He also regards Mr Rafsanjani as a potential rival.

Senior government figures have acknowledged that a high turnout is vital to reinforce the regime's democratic credentials in the face of US and European pressure for it to abandon its nuclear aspirations.

The wholesale exclusion of reformists risked deepening voter disillusionment, already widespread because of hardliners' systematic obstruction of the reform-minded programme of the outgoing president, Mohammed Khatami.

Since the revolution, turnout for a presidential election has never fallen below 50%. But in the current climate, analysts have forecast that fewer than half of Iran's 48 million eligible voters could take part.

Claims that Iran's leaders lacks legitimacy strengthen the hand of critics in the US who have pushed for "regime change" in Iran.

One analyst said last night that although the exclusion of Mr Mo'ein could have reduced turnout by up to 10%, the reformists would have backed away from their boycott threat.

"Without Mo'ein, the reformists would have secretly supported a Rafsanjani presidency," the analyst said. "They know a low turnout will only help the hardliners. They will discourage people from remaining passive and apathetic about a hardline, militarist presidency."

Mr Rafsanjani, 70, president from 1989 to 1997, is a pragmatist who insists he has entered the race reluctantly to bridge the gulf between reformists and hardliners.

Opinion polls show him with a strong lead. The main threat is believed to come from Mohammad Baqher Qalibaf, 43, a hardline former national police chief and air force commander. Favoured by Mr Khamenei, he is running a slick campaign using western-style polling methods.

The other hardline candidates are Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the revolutionary guards, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, and Ali Larijani, former head of Iran's broadcasting authority.

The sixth candidate is Mehdi Karroubi, an elderly cleric who has vowed to pay every Iranian £30 a week if elected."