Iran Reformers Hemmed in Ahead of Elections

Article excerpt

Elected four times and with 16 years of lawmaking behind him, Elyas Hazrati might have been considered a shoo-in candidate in Iran's March 14 parliament elections.

But the stocky newspaper editor was among the legions of liberal reformists rejected at first for a vote that, analysts say, is geared to preserve a hard-line conservative majority in parliament.

Mr. Hazrati says he was rejected for being "against Islam," because the reformist newspaper he edits, Etemaad, is critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and "assaults [his government] on a daily basis."

Indeed, Hazrati has the bearing of a street fighter, has taken part in past pro-reform protests, and has spoken out on behalf of Iranians challenging the regime. In his offices, a prominent photograph shows Hazrati in the dock of Iran's criminal court, which issued an 18-month suspended sentence in 2006 for "campaigning against the Islamic Republic."

"[Conservatives] are very scared of the popularity of the reformists and have many difference among themselves," says Hazrati, whose candidacy for the 290-seat parliament, or majlis, has since been reinstated. "Even if we only have five candidates, we will tell people we are competitive in five seats ... and make use of them."

Disqualifications weeks ago swept aside some 2,200 of more than 7,000 hopefuls, most of those excluded reformist candidates whose devotion to the Islamic system was questioned. Among them have been former ministers and governors, a veteran with 50 months' experience in the Iran-Iraq war, another who spent 70 months as a prisoner of war in Iraq, even a grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Many conservatives were embarrassed by the scale of rejections, which former President Mohammad Khatami called a "catastrophe." Lobbying of Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei by senior pragmatic figures has resulted in requalification so far of 850 names, with a final list due to be published today, but reformists say they can still contest only half the seats.

"The potent combination of nationalism, ideological zeal, and fear of foreign interference has closed down the political space," says a political scientist in Tehran who asked not to be named.

"This is a deliberate and preengineered clearing the way for Khamenei to ensure conservative dominance in Iranian politics for years to come," says the analyst. "They want to finish what they have not: getting rid of any reformist inclinations [and giving] a message to reformists not to contemplate a presidential comeback."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is up for reelection in 2009 and this majlis vote is seen as an important test of his support, even as some fellow conservatives chastise his uncompromising anti-West rhetoric and mishandling of the economy. The right-wing alliance calls itself "principlists," or osulgaran, but includes hard-line allies of the president as well as moderates.

"The vast majority in the next parliament will be principlists," Alireza Zakani, a majlis deputy and spokesman for Ahmadinejad's faction said last week. "The first priority of our plans will be to solve the problems of the everyday lives of people."

With inflation at about 20 percent, Iranians have seen little result from the president's 2005 campaign promises to bring each family cash from oil wealth. …

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