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Iranian travesty

Iran's presidential elections, which are scheduled to culminate in a decisive second round of voting tomorrow, are being denounced by some of the candidates themselves as a travesty of electoral politics. The manipulations attributed to hardline forces in the military and the clerical establishment reflect a determined drive by those archconservatives to monopolize all power centers in Iran.

Iranians longing for genuine democracy, pluralism, and equal rights for women will have to work out their own ways of outlasting the corrupt, repressive clerics ruling over them. Perhaps the soundest way for the outside world to show solidarity with Iranians thirsting for true democracy is to emulate their refusal to be duped by the ruses of the theocrats who hoard all true power in Iran's Islamic Republic.

Hardliners in the entourage of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Guardian Council, and the Revolutionary Guards have been castigated by reformers for rigging vote counts in last week's first round of ballotting. The result of their flagrant cheating was to elevate the mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardline loyalist of Khamenei and former Revolutionary Guard commander, from also-ran to second-round challenger of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The vote fraud appeared so flagrant that the candidate who became its primary victim, former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi -- an adviser to Khamenei -- tried to go public with his charges. In an open letter to Khamenei, he said that Revolutionary Guards and the vigilante thugs known as the Basiji had tampered with the results in key cities. Both Karroubi and Rafsanjani alluded to the tampering being organized, intimating that it was not a rogue operation but directed from the highest echelon of the regime.

The response was swift and forceful. Two newspapers that had been preparing to publish Karroubi's charges were shut down. And in a written response that Karroubi posted on the Internet, Khamenei warned his former adviser to cease questioning authority. ''Are you aware that what you are doing is aimed at creating a crisis and pessimism among people, and is in line with what our enemies want to do to the revolution and the Islamic Republic, and it will catch up with you too?" said Khamenei. ''Others may have similar protests. Do you think they should have the right to question everything as well?"

This is the age-old voice of the absolute ruler. Whether Khamenei and his cronies are scheming to place Ahmadinejad in the presidency or are using him to frighten people who distrust Rafsanjani into voting for the former president as the lesser of two evils, the most retrogressive forces in Iran are stamping out the popular hope for democratic reform.

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