Sweeping moves by Iranian hard- liners to disqualify reform opponents before next month's key elections are sparking a political crisis that could lead to the resignation of President Mohamad Khatami's government.
The unelected Guardian Council, which vets all political candidates, rejected nearly half of Iran's 8,200 parliamentary hopefuls over the weekend. Failure to reverse the action could bring Iran's messy political conflict to a head well before the Feb. 20 vote.
"If the government becomes impotent in securing the legitimate freedoms of the nation, it loses its legitimacy, and then, whether it dissolves itself or not, it is automatically dissolved," said Vice President Mohamed Satarifar, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Reformist members of parliament said that about 12 top government officials are ready to quit if the decision is not overturned, Reuters reported. The MPs said the list included four of Iran's six vice-presidents and six ministers.
The crisis is turning into a political test for Mr. Khatami and reformers, who have watched their popularity dissipate, and have fumed at conservative predictions of victory next month.
While reformists decry a "civilian coup" - dozens of the 80 incumbent deputies barred from running again have staged a sit-in at the 290-seat parliament since Sunday - some say the unprecedented scale of disqualifications may bolster the flagging reform cause.
"This is a very good gift for the reformists," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a former editor of a string of closed reform newspapers, who teaches political sociology at Tehran University.
Top liberal writers and intellectuals met Monday night at offices of the chief reform party, Musharekat, to discuss a unified strategy. "It's a new wave of movement," says Mr. Jalaiepour in a telephone interview, though not likely to change reformist fortunes.
"The 'rational' conservatives are against [the candidate disqualifications], but they are passive," says Jalaiepour. "These days hard-liners are very active and at the core of power, so they do what they wish. They suppose that democracy comes from the West and is not a product of Islam, and use that interpretation to justify undemocratic behavior."
President Khatami has vowed to "protest" through "legal channels," methods he does not see as "compatible with the principles of religious democracy."
But a letter from him apparently read out during the parliament sit-in, and reported in the Etemad reform newspaper Tuesday, suggested that he may step down if the crisis is not …