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Iran's meaningless vote

TODAY'S parliamentary elections in Iran shine a bright light on the terminal crisis of a failed political system.


The travesty of having the 12 members of a hard-line Guardian Council disqualify 2,500 of 8,200 candidates has not been lost on the electorate. Reformists speak of a parliamentary coup. Since a fettered Parliament and the office of the impotent President Mohammad Khatami have been the sole institutions in the hands of reformists, the hard-liners' strong-arm efforts to seize control of these platforms betray a fear of anything that resembles real democracy.

This is the anxiety of rulers who sense that their days in power are numbered. Their judiciary pitched in by closing two reformist newspapers yesterday. The papers were closed for printing a scathing open letter to the unelected cleric who bears the title of Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Signed by 100 pro-reform legislators, the letter castigated Khamenei for allowing freedom to be "trampled in the name of Islam."

In response to the thuggish tactics of the hard-liners, reformists have called for a boycott of the elections. Their logic might make sense to them, caught as they are between rivals who change the rules of the game at will and a public that has voted at least four times for change only to be cheated out of meaningful change. But the idea of a boycott has led the reformists into an impasse of paradoxes.

They say a ballot cast today is a vote for undemocratic elections. Conversely, a refusal to participate becomes a vote in favor of democracy. Iran's eligible voters -- there are 46 million of them -- may be excused for suffering a bout of vertigo from trying to follow this reasoning. They are being asked to believe that democracy requires one not to vote or that the act of voting identifies the voter as someone who actively rejects democracy.

The likely result is that pliant conservatives and zealous hard-liners will gain control of Parliament amid unverifiable claims about the effect of the boycott. Voters may stay home in droves, but vote-rigging by the hardliners will likely enable them to pretend there was a respectable turnout.

These spasms of a moribund system occur at the same time UN inspectors identified traces of highly enriched uranium on advanced centrifuges at an Iranian Air Force base. This suggests the regime has continued to lie to inspectors about its nuclear program.

The Bush administration and its European allies must walk a fine line, obliging the regime in Tehran to choose between a verifiable surrender of its nuclear weapons project and international censure and isolation -- yet refraining from any threat to use force. Left to their own devices, the ruling mullahs are doing a fine job of inoculating Iranians against the disease of clerical dictatorship.

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