- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

TEHRAN — Iran’s largest pro-reform party announced yesterday that it will boycott the Feb. 20 parliamentary elections, saying it no longer has hope for a free and fair vote. An emergency Cabinet meeting backed calls for a postponement of the balloting.

Unless hard-liners in charge of the elections bend to the pressure to reinstate thousands of disqualified candidates quickly, they may be forced into the extraordinary position of requiring military help to hold the vote.

In previous elections, senior military officials appointed by hard-liners supported them, while the bulk of military personnel voted for the reform camp.

The developments yesterday leave Iran at a crossroads: rule by the hard-liners or a path toward greater democracy. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, may lose legitimacy altogether unless he supports reformists’ calls for a democratic vote.

Mohammed Reza Khatami, leader of the pro-reform party and brother of the reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, said his Islamic Iran Participation Front would not field any candidates.

“With an overwhelming majority of the votes, our party decided not to participate in the February 20th elections,” he told reporters after an emergency meeting.

“We have no hope for the possibility of free and fair elections. All legal opportunities have been killed,” he said.

Nearly all the party’s candidates have been barred from running in the election — some of them sitting lawmakers, including Mohammed Reza Khatami, who also is a deputy speaker of parliament.

Without the party’s participation, hard-line candidates are likely to retake control of parliament easily. Reformists had won the parliament in 2000 for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Mr. Khatami also called on his brother’s government to “resolutely resist and not give in to any hard-line orders.”

“If the government strongly insists on its position, nobody in Iran will be able to hold elections,” he said.

Earlier yesterday, a government spokesman said Cabinet ministers backed calls to postpone the parliamentary vote and vowed during an emergency meeting not to hold a sham election.

The president, who has been confined to his home because of severe back pain, didn’t attend the meeting. Instead, the Cabinet meeting was chaired by First Vice President Muhammad Reza Aref, the spokesman said.

Iran’s powerful, hard-line Guardian Council, whose 12 members are appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei, decides when an election is held.

The furor began early last month when the Guardian Council disqualified more than 3,600 of the 8,200 people who had filed papers to run in the elections. After protests, and an opinion from Ayatollah Khamenei, the council restored 1,160 low-profile candidates to the list Friday, but barred more than 2,400 reformist party leaders and prominent politicians.

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