Iran's governors may block vote until clerics lift ban on candidates


TEHRAN, Iran - The governors of Iran's 28 provinces called yesterday for postponement of next month's parliamentary elections until hard-line Islamic clerics lift a ban on thousands of liberal candidates.

The governors are flexing their muscles in an increasingly acrimonious dispute with Iran's ruling religious clerics, who have been trying to take back control of the parliament from reform politicians by keeping reformists off the ballot next month.

Since the governors organize balloting in their respective provinces, they have the ability to scuttle the Feb. 20 polls if they choose.

The proposal suggests a shift in tactics by the reform government of President Mohammad Khatami, although it was impossible to tell where Khatami himself stood. His allies now appear focused on blocking the elections, after a sit-in and fast by blacklisted parliament members and mass resignation threats within Khatami's government failed to dissuade the religious conservatives.

"An acceptable competition among the parliamentary election hopefuls, in the course of which the people's rights would be respected in a free and fair election, is impossible under the current conditions," the governors wrote in a letter carried yesterday by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.

They were referring to the disqualification of more than a third of the 8,157 candidates running for the legislature, also called the Majlis. Iran's Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by Iran's supreme leader and hold final say in all matters, blacklisted the candidates this month on charges they violated Islamic tenets and the country's constitution, charges the candidates deny.

A subsequent public outcry against the ban led the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to order a review. So far, 861 candidates have been reinstated, and "more than 90 percent of the cases have been dealt with," Mohammad Jahromi, a spokesman for the council's vetting arm, told state-run television.

But the council would "not give in to any pressure or propaganda," Jahromi said, referring to the governors' letter.

None of the reinstated candidates is believed to be among the 83 disqualified incumbents. The council is scheduled to announce its final decision on the others today.

In their letter, the governors suggested that delaying the election would give the council more time to decide whether to reinstate the barred candidates.

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