The refusal by Iran’s Guardian Council to approve hundreds of reformist candidates in the parliamentary elections on 20 February has provoked a political crisis. What lies behind this decision?
This move is generally seen as part of the power struggle in Iran between the conservatives who want to maintain a strict Islamic approach and reformers who want greater liberalisation.
Guardian Council is led by Ayatollah Jannati.
Reformers control the parliament, the Majlis, but under Iran’s constitution, a series of appointed supervisory bodies have the ultimate say and these are in the hands of the conservatives.
Iran is about to mark the 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution which threw out the Shah. It may be that the conservatives felt that this was a good moment to try to prevent further domination of the parliament by reformers after the elections.
BBC regional analyst Sadeq Saba suggests that the conservatives were emboldened to disqualify so many because they reckoned that the man in the street would not risk his life by supporting the reformists.
Who has been disqualified?
The exact number is not known but one estimate from members of parliament is that of the 8,000 candidates overall, only half have been approved. The banned list includes more than 80 sitting members of the Majlis, all of them reformers.
One of them is Mohammed Reza Khatami, head of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the main reform party. He is also brother of the Iranian President.
Members who recently wrote to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urging him to allow greater freedom are on the list.
Two women activists, Fatima Haqiqatjou and Elaheh Koulaee were also disqualified.
What is the Guardian Council?
The Guardian Council is a supervisory body which has the power to vet candidates for parliament, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts (which chooses the Supreme Leader) and to reject legislation not considered to conform to Islamic principles.
It has 12 members. Six are clerics chosen by the Supreme Leader and six are Islamic lawyers appointed by Parliament.
The Council is led by the conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. He recently called for Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. He also accused the United States of trying to make political capital out of the Bam earthquake but said that Iran had given the Americans “a slap in the face.”
What has the been the reaction of the reformers?
One of them, Mohsen Mirdamadi, himself one of those disqualified, called the Guardian Council’s decision a “bloodless coup.” Mr Mirdamadi is the head of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee.
Vice-President Mohammed Ali Abtahi said: “The situation is like a football match in which the referee sends off one team and invites the other side to score.”
The reformers see the move as an attempt by hardliners to block the path of liberalisation. The parliament is currently controlled by the reform minded parties but their attempts to pass laws have been frustrated by the Guardian Council.
One battle has been over the age of marriage which the parliament wants to raise from 9 to 13 for girls and from 14 to 15 for boys. The Council says that the lower ages should stay, as marriage is a good way of countering “immorality” among teenagers.
What about the position of President Khatami?
He is a reformer, too, and he has criticised the Council’s decision. However he has called for calm and wants the issue resolved through negotiations.
He has said that the disqualified candidates should appeal against the decision.
It is also possible that he will consult the Council of Expediency, a body set up in 1988 to mediate in disputes between Parliament and the Council of Guardians. It, too, is seen as a mainly conservative body.
How might this affect Iran’s external relations?
The battle for control of Iran has important international implications. Recently, Iran accepted the demands of the UN nuclear agency the International Atomic Energy Agency for stricter inspection of its nuclear energy programme. The United States is also hinting at dialogue with Iran, something the EU has already begun.
If hardliners regain control of the whole of Iran’s complex government structure, such openings to the outside world may cease or slow down.
And Iran’s attitude towards developments in Iraq could be affected.