Holier than thou: candidates banned from Iranian ballot

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The Independent Online

It comes to something when a cleric is disbarred from running in the parliamentary elections in the Islamic republic of Iran, particularly when he is disqualified for being insufficiently Islamic. But that is what happened to Hojatoleslam Hadi Rabbani, an MP from Shiraz who was disqualified for "lack of practical adherence to Islam".

The mass disqualification of more than 2,200 candidates was the first pre-emptive shot fired by the fundamentalist hardliners allied to the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ahead of today's election to the Majlis (parliament).

In Mr Rabbani's case, he was punished because of his opposition to the Iranian President, but most of those disbarred were reformist candidates.

The disqualifications by the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for their loyalty to the Islamic revolution, produced one of the most evident signs of the intensification of the power struggle that will reach its climax with the presidential election next year. In the approach to the election, the Iranian public was treated to the unprecedented spectacle of the two main conservative factions tearing themselves apart, not only over whether the candidates were sufficiently Islamic, but also over the role of the military in politics.

"People are saying that the children of the revolution are eating each other," said one Tehran resident in her spacious apartment in the north of the city.

But a senior Iranian analyst said: "In fact, it wasn't about religion, it was all about the power struggle. They tried to disqualify their rivals from power."

The vicious fight for the heart and soul of the Islamic revolution received some coverage in newspapers, but not on state-run television.

It is a three-way fight, in which President Ahmadinejad's allies are pitted against an alliance of his enemies in the so-called "pragmatic" conservative camp, and the hardliners' traditional foes, the reformists, whose electoral chances have been handicapped by the disbarring of so many candidates.

Challenged about the disqualifications, Ali Reza Zakani, a leading light of the pro-Ahmadinejad bloc known as the United Principlist Front, retorted: "All countries have regulations. It's what the law says, in fact." He contended that 90 per cent of those disqualified in the contest for the 290 parliamentary seats were not the victims of political decisions, but were guilty of financial or moral irregularities, incompetence or plain criminality.

The disbarred candidates secured the participation of an additional contingent out of a total 4,500 candidates. But the reformists stand no chance of gaining more than a minority of seats because of the small number allowed to compete.

It remains to be seen, depending on today's turnout, whether it will be a strong minority which could enable them to ally themselves on certain issues with the conservatives, against the hardliners bent on continuing Iran's isolation from the rest of the world.

Despite a predicted victory by the coalitions of "principlists" in the parliament which they have dominated since the electoral rout of the reformers four years ago, analysts will be watching whether Mr Ahmadinejad's conservative challengers steal votes from his supporters.

The disbarring of Ali Eshraghi, a grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, caused the former pro-reform president Mohamed Khatami to describe the scale of the disqualifications as a "catastrophe". Mr Eshraghi was subsequently reinstated but has now withdrawn his candidacy.

The hardliners then went after another grandson of the former spiritual leader – whose family has until now been off limits for criticism – after he attacked the Revolutionary Guards commander for urging support for the "principlists". "To follow the path of the Islamic revolution, support for the principlists is necessary, inevitable and a divine duty of all revolutionary people," said the commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari.

Ayatollah Khomeini had ruled that the military should keep out of politics, as his grandson, Sayed Hassan Khomeini, reminded General Jafari in a rare public statement. The hardliners responded via the website Nosazi to smear Mr Khomeini, alleging that he had received a BMW and lived in the northern suburbs where he would "never leave" his personal sauna.

That even stirred the hardline editor-in-chief of the Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, who warned the President against "ignorant friends... pretending to support you and your government".

The row was only defused when General Jafari backed down, saying it was a "red line" for the military to take sides. Nosazi was shut down and its editor fired.

Iran's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, in a speech published on the front pages of all the newspapers yesterday, urged voters to reject those who supported the "enemy's agenda" – code for the reformists often portrayed as a tool of America. "The right representatives are those whose loyalties are to Islam and justice," he said.

For Iranian voters, the real issue is not so much the power struggle but the economy. Politicians acknowledge the effects of inflation (officially 20 per cent but estimated to be 10 per cent higher), which has dealt a serious blow to Mr Ahmadinejad's primary constituency, the poor. Rents have doubled in a year, food prices are going up and property prices are rocketing in a country where 67 per cent of the people are home owners.

The President and his conservative rivals

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Not running in the parliamentary election but backed by supporters grouped in the United Front of Principlists. Backs religious values which led to a moral crackdown with teenagers arrested for failing to wear appropriate Islamic attire. Also supports a radical stance in foreign relations which led to threats of war over Iran's nuclear programme.

Ali Larijani

A leader of the Broad and Popular Coalition of Principlists opposed to Mr Ahmadinejad since unsuccessfully challenging him for the presidency. A well-known figure in Iran since he ran state TV and radio, and came to international prominence as chief nuclear negotiator. Known as a "pragmatic conservative", he resigned after falling out with Mr Ahmadinejad over negotiating tactics on the nuclear issue.

Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf

Another leader of the BPCP, he is mayor of Tehran and openly clashed with Mr Ahmadinejad – his predecessor in the post – over the city's handling of the effects of the harsh winter and on extending the Tehran metro. He is a hardline former national police chief who also competed unsuccessfully against Mr Ahmadinejad in the last presidential election.

Mohsen Rezaie

A former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who is the third leader of the anti-Ahmadinejad BPCP. Rezaie, who commanded the Guards for almost all of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, is also seen as a future presidential rival of Mr Ahmadinejad. Currently secretary of Iran's top political arbitration body, the Expediency Council, which advises the spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.