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Reformist lawmakers in Iran walk out, then return

The council of clerics is castigated in session carried on state radio

TEHRAN -- Iran's reformist lawmakers castigated the nation's most powerful council of clerics in a legislative session carried live yesterday on state-run radio, then quit en masse to protest the religious rulers' sweeping ban of liberal candidates in this month's parliamentary polls.

"They turned our Islam into the Islam of the Taliban," resigning lawmaker Rajab Ali Mazrouie charged during the unprecedented and insulting rebuke of the hard-line Guardian Council. "Elections whose results are predetermined violate the rights and ideals of the nation."

But the political drama at the Majlis, or parliament, ended quickly, with most of the roughly 120 members who ultimately resigned returning to their seats and continuing their work. It was unclear whether reformers would openly defy the disputed rulings of clerics on the council and provoke a further political crisis.

There wasn't much choice but to return to their seats, some reform advocates later said. If the lawmakers had walked out, leaving no quorum and forcing the Majlis to shut down, it could have provided an excuse for the ruling clerics to crack down on a protest that has overshadowed the republic's silver jubilee.

Reformers inside and outside President Mohammad Khatami's popularly elected government are walking a tightrope. They insist on pushing for freer elections while holding back out of fear that the Islamic system of government might collapse.

Echoing statements of the Islamic Republic's founding father, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on the 25th anniversary of his return to Iran, most Majlis members yesterday described their goal to be an Islamic Republic. Although they disagreed on exactly how an Islamic Republic should work, they did agree that it should be based on free elections.

Iran's system of government is an unwieldy mixture of democratic and theocratic institutions, with religious rulers given final authority. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei holds ultimate power for life under the constitution. The Guardian Council, partly appointed by Khamenei, has the authority to veto legislation and vet candidates for office, but reformers say it has overstepped its authority.

"Destroying people's rights is the greatest sin in Islam," Majlis speaker Mehdi Karroubi said after piling the resignation letters the members handed him one by one into a foot-high stack. He called on Khamenei to "intervene to solve this problem" and added that he is still optimistic that the acrimonious dispute can be resolved.

The live broadcast that was carried uninterrupted on Majlis Radio, which routinely broadcasts parliamentary sessions, was a rare glimpse for the Iranian public into the brewing political crisis that the broadcast media has so far censored. The three-week sit-in by members each day was never shown on television, nor were key reformers interviewed. Last night, Iranian television showed footage of lawmakers handing the letters to Karroubi, but without the harsh words for the Guardian Council that accompanied the resignations. The debate and parliamentary approval needed for the resignations to take effect could tie up the legislature for a month.

The spectacle failed to revive waning public interest.

"These resignations mean nothing," said Delnaz Setayesh, a 19-year-old government accountant who waited for a friend outside their English class. "Who has use for representatives who are not doing anything for the people?"

An hour's drive south of Tehran, Khatami made a surprise appearance at the inauguration of Iran's new international airport yesterday, less than 24 hours after doctors ordered him to stay in bed because of crippling back pain. Supporters said Khatami turned out to dispel concern he'd given up on trying to fix the political crisis.

Many Iranians viewed his sudden debilitation and bed rest as a green light to his ministers to proceed with their threatened resignations and potential boycott of the elections. But like the Majlis members, Khatami appears willing to only go so far in challenging the religious rulers.

The real challenge, analysts predict, could come from Iran's 28 governors, who organize balloting in their provinces and who have pledged to resign over the ban.

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