- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

TEHRAN — Iran’s Cabinet ministers and vice presidents have submitted their resignations in a gambit to force conservative clerics to reinstate barred candidates in upcoming elections, government officials said yesterday.

The standoff has triggered yet another crisis in the Islamic republic, but it also has exposed the reform movement’s declining appeal. The episode has been marked by the absence of any grass-roots support.

Iran has six vice presidents and 24 Cabinet ministers.

Muhammad Ali Abtahi, an adviser to reformist President Mohammed Khatami, told reporters yesterday that an unspecified number of ministers and vice presidents had submitted their resignations, which would be withdrawn only if a committee of clerics that screens candidates relented on its decision to bar 4,000 mostly reform-minded politicians from running in the Feb. 20 parliamentary elections.

Mr. Khatami, in Davos, Switzerland, for a conference of world leaders, must accept the resignations before they become effective. Reformists politicians have threatened previously to resign, but never have done so.

Eighty reformist parliamentarians are holed up in Iran’s parliament as part of a protest against the powerful Guardian Council’s decision earlier this month. The 12-man council, appointed by the supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the power to veto laws and political candidates.

The deputies have said they are likely to announce today or tomorrow whether they will continue, end or intensify their protest.

They have tried all week to drum up support among an apathetic populace.

In a building in the old section of town, a smattering of skeptical young men and women gathered one evening this week to hear the politicians make their case.

“We, the sit-in strikers at parliament, hope to be able to prevent this diversion from the correct path,” Fatemeh Haqiqatjou, a Tehran parliamentarian, told the audience of about 50.

“Either the people will trust us, or the mistrust that has spread among all Iranians will prevail and the strikers won’t be supported,” he said.

But the listeners, mostly former student activists still nominally attached to the reformist cause, were not impressed.

The former student activists wondered aloud why the parliamentarians didn’t stage a sit-down strike when the Guardian Council refused to approve a law outlawing torture; or when students were imprisoned and held without charge in the bowels of Evin prison; or when the government first stalled, then botched, then squelched an investigation into who ordered a series of assassinations of dissidents; or when conservative judges shut down reformist newspaper after newspaper, hauling journalists off to jail.

“On other, more sensitive issues they didn’t show any real will to fight. There was no protest or action on their part,” said Sajad Qoroqi, political editor of a Tehran college newspaper. “But now that they themselves have been barred from running [in the elections], they’re coming forward and claiming that they’re defending reform and the rule of law.”

Led by Mr. Khatami, the reformists pulled off a string of electoral victories in the late 1990s. But they failed to build and sustain a mass movement, often discouraging supporters from taking their grievances to the streets or organizing political rallies.

Instead, the reformists wrangled with their opponents within Iran’s twisted parliamentary and legal framework, a clerical dictatorship with an elected government.

Though they had the votes, the reformists weren’t able to wrest control of the country’s security, intelligence, judiciary and armed forces from the tight grasp of conservative clerics.

Many reformists concede that their strategy has failed, dousing the political hopes of Iranians and turning them off from the political process.

“Unfortunately, the time that people were present on the political scene and were expecting more effective actions from their representatives has passed,” Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric and member of parliament, told his colleagues in parliament earlier this week.

Faced with their own imminent political extinction at the hands of conservative clerics, the reformists are trying desperately to woo back their lost shock troops: students, women, youth and the intellectuals.

Many Iranians say they won’t vote in the February elections, preferring to let the reformists lose.

“With the reformists in power, if you criticize the government, you’re criticizing the reformist government,” said Javad Alaei, a grizzled veteran of political battles who has been jailed thrice and is a taxi driver.

“And if you don’t criticize the government, you’re supporting this bizarre economic and political system.”

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