- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

TEHRAN — Several hundred students demanded a nationwide referendum on the country’s future at a boisterous rally yesterday in the latest sign that a crisis over coming parliamentary elections has begun to shake awake a somnolent Iranian public.

A group of 500 intellectuals also announced it would boycott the balloting, ignoring a call from Iran’s all-powerful spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei for an end to factional differences.

Several previous rallies since the unelected Council of Guardians disallowed the candidacies of thousands of reformers drew only tepid crowds of unenthusiastic students, but yesterday’s rally showed new depths of anger among students, long a barometer of Iran’s political mood.

“Referendum, referendum, is the slogan of the people,” nearly 1,000 students at the University of Tehran chanted while several prominent reformist legislators looked on.

Hard-line “ansar” vigilantes “commit crimes, while the supreme leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] supports them,” they chanted. “Participating in the elections is the crime of crimes.”

The entire reform bloc, which has won a majority in the past two elections but has seen most of its efforts overruled by hard-line clerics, has resigned from parliament and pledged to boycott the Feb. 20 balloting to protest the barring of like-minded candidates, including about 80 current deputies.

Yesterday, 500 political activists, journalists, academics and other intellectuals announced their support for the boycott in an open letter addressed to the people of Iran.

“We hereby announce that we won’t take part in this illegal, un-free and improper election,” said the letter, published in the daily Yas-e-nou. “The brave representatives acted upon their promises to the nation. Now it’s time for other authorities and segments of the nation to support their historical, legal move.”

The statement appeared to repudiate the remarks of Ayatollah Khamenei, the successor to revolutionary founder Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who said the parliamentary resignations were illegal and un-Islamic.

“Our country today, more than any time, needs unity and agreement between its esteemed officials,” Ayatollah Khamenei said in a letter to reformist President Mohammed Khatami and parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi. “The elections are important for our nation, and our nation must be held in a healthy, lively and enthusiastic [climate].”

The hard-liners who control Iran’s judiciary and intelligence apparatuses, meanwhile, have begun cracking down on those who have spoken out most forcefully during the crisis.

A special court has summoned Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh, publisher Mashallah Shamsolvaezin and state news agency director Abdullah Nasseri. Several outspoken members of the clergy have also been ordered to appear before a special clerical court, newspapers reported.

Hard-liners have warned of consequences for those deputies who resigned from their posts. “To take one’s name out of the ballot box is against Islamic rules and morality,” said Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of the Council of Guardians, in the daily Resalat newspaper.

Hard-line clerics have often used charges of heresy or opposition to Islam to jail dissidents.

Isa Saharkhiz, publisher of the newspaper Aftab and one of the 500 signatories to yesterday’s letter, said he feared the hard-liners would intensify the crackdown after filling the parliament with their own followers Feb. 20.

“The [hard-liners] won’t be able to tolerate the departing parliamentarians going into the society, speaking at rallies and continuing their activities,” he said. “It will be like a coup d’etat.”

Mr. Khatami, the smiling, dapper cleric who once embodied the hopes of Iranians, spoke out bitterly against his foes at a Tehran cultural conference.

“Those in power whose power doesn’t come from the people, but who work against them, who use religion, science and even culture to reinforce their power and humiliate others, who deform history, will be judged mercilessly by history,” he said.

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