TEHRAN -- Hard-liners have thrown Iran's legislative elections into crisis by disqualifying hundreds of liberal candidates, including more than 80 sitting lawmakers who are allied with the reformist president.
President Mohammad Khatami pledged to fight the move, and reformist members of parliament staged a sit-in protest at the legislature. One lawmaker condemned the decision as a "bloodless coup" by Islamic conservatives.
Reformist lawmakers were protesting "the illegal decision of the Guardian Council to disqualify prominent reformers who have resisted hard-line dictatorship," said Reza Yousefian, one of those disqualified.
The disqualifications were reported yesterday by the official Islamic Republic News Agency and by Khatami allies, but it was unclear when the council made the decision. The council, which comprises conservatives picked by Iran's supreme leader, barred more than 80 incumbent lawmakers, all reformists, from seeking another term in next month's parliamentary elections, the news agency said.
In all, about 900 of the 1,700 people who wanted to contest seats in Tehran have been disqualified, members of parliament said.
The disqualified legislators include Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of Iran's president, and Behzad Nabavi -- both deputy speakers of parliament. Mohammad Reza Khatami leads the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the largest reformist party.
The Guardian Council also disqualified Fatemeh Haqiqatjou and Elaheh Koulaee, two female legislators who have fought for women's rights.
President Khatami vowed yesterday to challenge the disqualifications, saying there would be a "harsh reaction" if legal channels failed to overturn the council's decision.
"It's meaningless that qualification of prominent figures who have worked for the nation for years is not approved," the president told reporters after a Cabinet meeting. "I'm against such disqualifications. There are legal ways to fight."
Lawmaker Mohsen Mirdamadi called the Guardian Council's decision a "bloodless coup," the official IRNA news agency reported. Mirdamadi is the head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee and was one of those disqualified.
"Through these massive disqualifications, they [hard-liners] want only their own thinking to control the next parliament," IRNA quoted Mirdamadi as saying.
Mirdamadi said he, the younger Khatami, and Nabavi were disqualified, because the Guardian Council decided "we are not loyal to the absolute rule of supreme leader."
Reformist leaders have threatened a boycott of the election if their candidates are disqualified.
An estimate 8,200 prospective candidates registered last month to run in the Feb. 20 elections for 290 legislative seats. Their qualifications had to be approved by local trustees and then the Guardian Council.
Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said the government "will not consider illegal decisions by any body as binding."
That means the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by reformists, may ignore the Guardian Council's rulings and put the disqualified names on the ballots.
The 12 members of the Guardian Council, who are chosen by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had warned earlier that they would disqualify candidates whom they deemed to oppose Khamenei's absolute rule.
Hard-liners consider Khamenei above the law and answerable only to God. Reformists want Khamenei's powers to be curbed so that he becomes answerable to the nation.
In the February 2000 elections, the conservatives lost control of the parliament for the first time since the 1979 Islamic revolution. They won less than one-third of the legislature.
Next month's polls will be a crucial test for Iran's reform movement, which has frequently been thwarted by hard-line organs of government and has lost popularity because of a perceived failure to deliver on its promises of liberalization.