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Iran's reformists threaten to quit

Conservatives' ban on candidates prompts protest

ISTANBUL -- Senior reformist politicians in Iran threatened yesterday to resign their elective offices if a conservative oversight body does not allow thousands of candidates to run for parliament next month. The country's president hinted he might join them.

The threat came as reformist lawmakers continued a sit-in in Iran's parliament for a third night to protest the mass disqualifications ordered by the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated panel that screens candidates under Iran's theocratic system.

"If the government becomes impotent in securing the legitimate freedoms of the nation, it loses its legitimacy," said Mohammad Satarifar, the reformist vice president in charge of the Management and Planning Organization, according to the official news agency IRNA.

Lawmakers told reporters that four of Iran's six vice presidents and much of the Cabinet would step down if the candidate rolls are not substantially restored. Governors of Iran's 28 provinces also have threatened to step down.

In a speech to the governors, President Mohammad Khatami suggested that he might join the crowd. "I believe we should all remain steadfast on the scene, and if one day we were asked to leave the scene, we will do so together," IRNA quoted Khatami as saying.

Khatami, who won Iran's last two presidential elections on a pro-reform platform but is widely viewed as ineffectual after six years in office, had irked some reformists by calling for calm and only legal challenges to the "senseless" decision by the Guardian Council. The moderate cleric has never followed through on his repeated suggestion that he might step down in protest when basic reforms were blocked.

"President Khatami, I'm calling on you to defend the constitution and people's freedom," lawmaker Abolfazl Shakouri said on state radio before Khatami's speech. "You cannot defend people's rights with ambiguous statements."

The disqualification crisis appeared to reinvigorate reformists who openly feared losing control of the elected government in the Feb. 20 elections even with a full slate of candidates. The restless Iranian public that swept the reformists into parliament four years ago has grown steadily more disillusioned with politics after seeing promises of new personal liberties blocked by hard-line conservatives. Very few people turned out for municipal elections last year: only 15 percent of eligible voters in Tehran, the capital. The result delighted conservatives, who won.

Conservative strategists spoke recently of repeating the feat next month, relying on depressed turnout to finesse a nationwide parliamentary victory that would allow the widely unpopular ruling clerics a fresh claim of legitimacy.

But the scale of the Guardian Council's rejections -- declaring about half of 8,200 applicants ineligible -- recast the entire election. Analysts blamed hard-liners who have a history of dramatically punitive decisions that later must be scaled back, including sentencing a popular history professor to death for a speech questioning their authority.

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