Iran Reformers Criticize Supreme Leader

Feb 17, 2:20 PM (ET)


TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - In a daring protest described Tuesday as a "cry of agony," more than 100 reformist lawmakers accused Iran's supreme leader of allowing freedoms to be "trampled" and rigging upcoming parliament elections in favor of hard-line backers.

The attack - in a letter sent to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - raised political dissent to levels unimaginable just a few weeks ago and shattered taboos about public criticism of Iran's unchallenged political and spiritual authority.

The letter struck right at a core complaint: that Khamenei's regime has corrupted the spirit of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled a Western-backed monarchy. His supporters believe he is incapable of error and answerable only to God.

"The popular (1979) revolution brought freedom and independence for the country in the name of Islam. But now you lead a system in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled in the name of Islam," the legislators said in the letter, made public Tuesday - a day after being sent to Khamenei.


The missive also underlined a new and aggressive form of defiance by liberals booted from the political process. Critics call Friday's parliamentary elections a charade after the disqualification of more than 2,400 pro-reform candidates.

"It is a cry of agony for what's happening to our country," said Reza Yousefian, a parliament member who has joined appeals for a mass boycott of the balloting. "We may see a strong social backlash."

Hard-line candidates are expected to sweep the elections and retake control of the 290-seat parliament - the main battleground between the Islamic establishment and liberals since a pro-reform landslide four years ago.

"Institutions under your supervision - after four years of humiliating the elected parliament and thwarting (reform) bills - have now, on the verge of the parliamentary elections, deprived the people of the most basic right: the right to choose and be chosen," the letter said.

There was no immediate reaction from Khamenei or other top members of the non-elected clerical leadership. In the past, however, activists and others have been arrested for less provocative statements.

The letter was not signed. But a parliamentary source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said more than 100 legislators backed the letter, including deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of President Mohammad Khatami.

The president's stature as a reform leader has been eroding over the years. It took a dramatic plunge this month after he bowed to pressure to hold the elections and then called for a high turnout - echoing Khamenei's appeals and putting him directly at odds with the boycott movement.

"I think we would all want him to be stronger," said Mohammad Reza Khatami during a gathering of reformist legislators in the parliament building.

"The hard-liners have been playing chess and losing," said Jalil Sazegarnejad, another reformist lawmaker blocked from seeking re-election. "So they just changed the rules so they can win."

The text of the letter appeared on pro-reform Web sites but was not mentioned by state-run media. Newspapers have reportedly been warned not to publish it.

"The rulers don't want the nation even to hear criticism of Khamenei. But who doesn't know in this country that freedom has been slaughtered in the name of Islam by a few unelected clerics?" said Yousefian, who has been disqualified from running.

The disqualifications were carried out by the Guardian Council, whose 12 members are appointed by Khamenei.

The letter called the council's decision a "vast illegal action" that permitted "sham elections." It went on to note that Iranian officials have denounced the elections and "not America or what you called the enemy."

Khamenei often blames Iran's troubles on the United States and unidentified "enemies."

A low voter turnout would be widely interpreted as a sign of support for reformers, who seek to loosen the theocracy's broad state and commercial controls and bring more social and cultural openness. More than 46 percent of the registered voters turned out for parliament elections in 2000.

"Now the heart of the reform movement is with the people and not in parliament," said Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a political science lecturer at Tehran University and former editor of a banned pro-reform newspaper. "This is important. It's outside the direct control of the hard-liners and that frees them to take bold action."