Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Iran's religious watchdog bows to reformists - World - smh.com.au

Iran's religious watchdog bows to reformists - World - smh.com.au: "Iran's religious watchdog bows to reformists
By Robert Tait in Tehran
May 25, 2005

Iran's powerful religious watchdog, the Guardian Council, yesterday reversed its exclusion of two reformist candidates from presidential elections on June 17, defusing a row that had sparked calls for a boycott of the vote.

The reinstatement of the former education minister Mostafa Mo'ein and the Vice-President, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, was revealed in a letter from the head of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, to the country's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

Ayatollah Khamenei made a dramatic intervention on Monday in the election by ordering the council to reassess its disqualification of Mr Mo'ein and Mr Mehralizadeh.

The move followed threats of a poll boycott by reformists furious at the decision by the council, an unelected body of conservative clerics and judges, to disqualify all but six of 1014 aspiring candidates, including 89 women.

The council approved only the candidacies of the former president Hojatolesam Ali Akbar 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 1979 Islamic revolution.

But in a decree issued on state television on Monday, Ayatollah Khamenei, himself a hardliner, had questioned the wisdom of the decision. "It is 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."

Ayatollah 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 Ayatollah Khamenei opposes. Despite calls for a boycott, many reform-minded voters were expected to vote for Mr Rafsanjani to prevent a hardliner being elected.

Ayatollah 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 program. He also regards Ayatollah 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 exclusion of reformists risked deepening voter disillusionment, already widespread because of hardliners' systematic obstruction of the reform-minded program of the outgoing president, Mohammed Khatami.

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

Claims that the country's leaders lack legitimacy strengthen the hand of critics in the US who have pushed for "regime change" in Iran. The US State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said on Monday that Iranians deserved to determine for themselves what kind of government they had and to choose their own leaders.

"As always, the United States believes the Iranian people deserve to shape the governance of their country and to choose their own leaders. The hopes and dreams of the Iranian people have gone, sadly, unfulfilled but their aspirations for a better and freer Iran remain."

One analyst said that although the exclusion of Mr Mo'ein could have reduced turnout by up to 10 per cent, 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."

Ayatollah 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.

Recent opinion polls show he was 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.

Among the candidates is Mehdi Karroubi, an elderly cleric who has vowed to pay every Iranian $A72 a week if elected.

The Guardian, Bloomberg"