The decision of Iran's Guardian Council to disqualify thousands of candidates from next month's parliamentary election has sparked anger and resignation threats from Iran's reformists. The dispute is threatening the delicate balance between reformers, who control the parliament, and conservatives who control the more powerful Guardian Council. Both Iran's reformist president and its conservative supreme ayatollah are trying to settle the dispute.
Iran's reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, is facing a serious test in his ongoing struggle with hardliners. He is trying to negotiate a settlement that will satisfy Iran's religious establishment and also convince moderates that the country is continuing its progress toward reforms.
He has met resistance on both sides.
Mr. Khatami told parliament Wednesday that he believed a deal could be struck with the hardline Islamist Guardian Council, which disqualified nearly half of the 8,000 candidates from parliamentary elections scheduled for February 20. Most of those disqualified were reformists, including more than 80 current members of parliament.
On Wednesday, the president urged the reformist members to end their sit-in protest at the parliament building against the Council's decision, but they refused. Many senior officials, including four vice presidents, six government ministers and all 27 provincial governors have threatened to resign unless the candidates are allowed to run. Several days ago, President Khatami indicated he might resign, too.
Meanwhile, the Guardian Council said it would not be pressured into lifting the election bans.
But now, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni has told the Council to reconsider its decision. According to Iran's state television, the Ayatollah said those candidates should not have been barred from running unless there was adequate proof they are not qualified.
Cairo University professor of political science Pakinam El-Sharkawy says the current political crisis is more severe than other disputes she has seen between reformers and conservatives in Iran.
"I think this one is more critical because the conservatives have gone so far," he said. "Before that, the crises were just a kind of limited attempt for the conservatives to threaten the power and image of moderates in society. But now it is a major legal and constitutional step taken by the conservatives to even deprive the moderates from controlling the legislative authority. So I think they are at a critical turning point and they have to fight in a more effective way to keep and preserve and even to gain more power in the future."
Reformist ideals, including democracy in government, a free press, and improved rights for women, have been gaining momentum in Iran for the past several years.
Reformists won control of Iran's parliament for the first time in 2000.
When Mr. Khatami ran for president on a reformist platform in 1997, he won by a landslide. And despite low voter turnout, he was elected to a second term in 2001, collecting more than 70 percent of the votes cast.
But the president's plans to reform many of Iran's policies have met with resistance from the Guardian Council. It is an appointed body of 12 Islamic clerics and lawyers who have the power to approve or reject candidates and to veto legislation, in order to preserve what they see as the essential principles of Iran's Islamic Republic.
Many analysts view the Guardian Council's recent move as an attempt to ensure that reformists do not continue to control the parliament.
But former Arab League Secretary General Esmat Abdel Meguid, says the majority of Iranians support reformist ideals.
"It is a new era that Khatami is trying to open," he said. "The man has very clear ideas about the future. This opposition is there, and if we handle it properly, then Khatami can win. The prospect for Khatami to continue and resist this kind of pressure is there."
But a specialist on Iran at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Shaul Bakhash, says if the Guardian Council's decision stands, it could disillusion many Iranian voters, who have supported reformist candidates in growing numbers in the past three elections.
"The reform movement for which they voted and which they supported with so much enthusiasm in three elections has not been able to deliver on the main issues on which they campaigned," he said. "I would think that this disqualification ruling by the Council of Guardians would lead even more Iranians to stay away from the polls when they are held and it is hard to see that the parliament elected under such circumstances would have a great deal of legitimacy."
Both of Iran's top leaders are trying to avoid that, but so far neither side has shown any indication of willingness to back down.