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A fateful concession by Iran's president

ON THE 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution that swept away the monarchy, Iranians have little to celebrate.


Iran's experiment with reform -- the idea of democracy within the confines of theocracy -- appears to have run its course. A backlash from militant clerics intent on extinguishing liberty in the name of religion threatens to plunge Iran into a political abyss. In post-9/11 America, one cannot neglect the strategic significance of the arcane theological and institutional debates rocking the Islamic Republic of Iran.

On Jan. 11, the Council of Guardians disqualified nearly half of the 8,000 candidates registered for February elections to Parliament, including more than 80 incumbent reformists, among them President Mohammad Khatami's brother. The disqualifications were justified on the grounds of ensuring conformity with religious principles, among them submission before the absolute authority of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Faced with a sit-in by reformist parliamentarians and the threat of a national boycott of the Feb. 20 elections, Khatami threatened to escalate the conflict with the resignation of his entire administration: "We will go together or stay together," he declared.

Upon the supreme leader's intervention, the council reviewed its decision and reinstated only a handful of incumbents and one-third of the blacklisted candidates, prompting more than 100 parliamentarians to resign.

Khatami's interior minister, Moussavi Lari, warned that elections might have to be postponed. Still, Khatami refused to accept the resignation of his ministers, urged an end to parliamentary sit-ins, and held out hope of compromise through high-level negotiations. Those hopes appear to have been dashed.

In a joint letter address to the supreme leader on Feb. 6, Khatami and Mehdi Karrubi, speaker of Parliament, condemned the council for refusing to budge: "Your Eminence's instruction were not followed, and the list drawn up did not meet our minimum requirements. In fact, unfortunately, they even linked their action to the governmental decree issued by Your Eminence. In our view, this is tantamount to injustice to the supreme leader."

Yet, remarkably, having characterized the council's decision as a coup and threatened to resign in the absence of free and fair elections, Khatami and Karrubi promised to hold the elections this week as instructed by the leader, in effect sanctioning the coup they had condemned.

Khatami cannot mask and has not stopped the council's strategic thrust: destroying democracy by crushing the press, Parliament, and the people. The council is intent on using Islam as a bayonet above the ballot box: a blade for the coercion of consent and elimination of dissent. Such a departure from democratic principles would have tragic consequences in Iran and across the Islamic world.

Despite his promises of liberalization, Khatami has failed to hold his ground against conservatives. The result has been to let hardliners gut the democratic transition in Iran.

If the question of religious qualification is at the root of the legal conflicts within the Islamic Republic, then none of the state's organs meet standards of orthodoxy. The council's failures of oversight have allowed the judiciary to serve as a sanctuary for murderers. The murder of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian journalist, is only the latest example. Thousands have been killed in the sacrificial crucibles of the state. Shi'ism has become its antithesis: an ideology for the persecution rather than protection of religious and political minorities.

For Khatami to capitulate before the supreme leader and council is to cede ground to institutions that are not subject to the rule of law. Khomeini's republic is not divine; its servants not infallible. To accept the religious basis of their claim to political power is to participate in a lie: a fiction that has no basis in history and a pretense that has no basis in religion.

Further negotiation with the council and leader only postpones an inevitable confrontation in favor of a compromise with guardians who are abusing religion to privatize the public trust. The religious, political, and economic monopoly of this criminal cartel must be broken.

Khatami may lack the authority to force Ayatollah Khamenei and the Council of Guardians to resign. And he may lack the will to mobilize the electorate against absolutism. But he must not surrender a power that is his alone: the power to resign in the name of a people he cannot protect against usurpers he cannot represent.

At the least, Khatami will be honoring, rather than threatening to honor, his oath of office.

It's time for acts of faith in the people instead of deals cut above -- and without -- them.

Amir Soltani Sheikholeslami is US coordinator at Afghans for Civil Society.

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