TEHRAN, Iran – The leader of Iran's largest pro-reform party said Monday it will boycott Feb. 20 parliamentary elections, saying they would not be free and fair and raising the stakes in the country's growing political crisis.
Mohammad Reza Khatami, leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (search) and brother of Iran's president, said the party would not field any candidates because thousands of liberal candidates have been disqualified from the polls by hard-line clerics of the Guardian Council.
Many of the disqualified candidates are sitting lawmakers, including Khatami, who also is deputy parliament speaker.
"We have no hope for the possibility of free and fair elections. All legal opportunities have been killed," Khatami said.
Earlier, the government spokesman said Iranian Cabinet ministers backed calls to postpone the vote and vowed during an emergency meeting not to hold a sham election. The decision came after Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari presented a report saying conditions for free elections did not exist.
"The Cabinet also agreed not to hold elections that are not competitive, fair and free," spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said.
Reformist President Mohammad Khatami did not attend the Cabinet meeting because he is resting at home with severe back pain.
The five ministers assigned last week to reach a compromise with the council said their efforts had failed "despite showing flexibility," Ramezanzadeh said.
The powerful council ultimately decides when an election is held, but the government's position strengthens the hand of reformists demanding a boycott.
Without the participation of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, enough hard-line candidates will run uncontested to retake control of parliament from the reformists. Reformists won the parliament in 2000 for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and used it as a platform to press for social and political reforms.
The controversy began last month when the Guardian Council (search), whose 12 members are appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, disqualified more than 3,600 of the 8,200 people filing papers to run in the polls.
After protests and an opinion from Khamenei, the council Friday restored 1,160 low-profile candidates to the list — still keeping more than 2,400 candidates out.
Reformists say the council disqualified liberal candidates to fix the election in favor of conservatives. The hard-liners repeatedly have thwarted President Khatami's efforts toward greater democracy and a relaxation of the Islamic social code.
The council denies political motives and argues that the disqualified candidates lacked the criteria to stand for election, even though more than 80 of them were elected in 2000.
Some 124 lawmakers in the 290-seat Majlis (search), or parliament, resigned Sunday in a dramatic gesture intended to force the clerical hierarchy to reinstate the candidates.
Hard-liners may have to resort to extraordinary measures — perhaps even relying on the elite revolutionary guards and other armed forces — simply to hold the elections in two weeks as scheduled.