WASHINGTON – The Bush administration weighed in Friday on two troubled states that have taken very different paths, and suggested the Iranians may want to take a lesson from the Libyan government, which agreed in December to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Tehran started another day on the wrong foot, according to administration officials who called Friday's parliamentary elections in Iran (search) invalid and not meeting international standards for free and fair voting.
Even before the voting began Friday, some of Iran's leading reformists conceded defeat. Their concession followed the Feb. 1 resignation from Parliament of about 120 lawmakers who were protesting a move by Iran's most powerful hardliners to bar more than 2,000 reform-minded candidates from seeking office.
"Candidates have been barred from participating in the elections in an attempt to limit the choice of the Iranian people for their government. These actions do not represent free and fair elections (search) and are not consistent with international norms," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.
Instead of participating in the elections, reformists held a sit-in at the Parliament, encouraged a voter boycott and accused hardliners of rigging the vote.
But one reformist lawmaker said even with the ban, he and his allies will look for ways to bring change to the country.
"This doesn't mean we will disappear from the political scene. The political scene is not just the government," said Reza Yousefian.
In fact, the drama of the elections was not so much the ban or the results, but the turnout -- expected to be about 50 percent nationwide.
Many Iranians were expected to stay home not only because of the disillusionment with politics, but because of lost faith in President Mohammad Khatami (search), who is considered a reformist in some Western circles.
Khatami didn't alleviate any concerns when he responded to complaints about the vote by saying: "Whatever the result of the elections, we must accept it."
Reformists accuse hardliners of blocking Khatami's efforts for change, and they argue that if Islamic conservatives take back control of Parliament, they could undo some of Iran's recent reforms and return to a pattern of clamping down on newspapers -- two were shut down earlier this week, tightening dress codes for women and increasing restrictions on the ability of young men and women to interact in public.
Islamic conservatives say that the reformist candidates were barred because they did not qualify. They also told Iranian citizens not to worry about a rollback of reforms, even as they eye the presidency in next year's elections.
"Our first step was the city council, the second step is the Parliament, after the Parliament, we can see what the third step is," said Hossein Fadaei, a candidate for parliament.
With results not expected for a few days, the Bush administration responded to the crackdown on the reformists by saying the government's actions were indicative of a regime that does not care about its people.
"I think the Iranian people have hopes and dreams. And the way to realize those aspirations is through the election of a government that represents them. To the extent that they cannot do that or to the extent that those aspirations or that will is frustrated, that's disappointing," Ereli said.
Iran's Hardline Tactics Extend Beyond Ballot Box
Meanwhile, Malaysian police released a report on Friday about interrogations it held with partners of A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, and the man who admits to selling centrifuge parts to Iran. Centrifuge machines can be used to enrich uranium.
The parts were sold on the black market in the mid-1990s for around $3 million, according to Malaysian police. The man interviewed by the Malaysians allegedly handled the sale to Iran.
At the same time, U.N. inspectors inside Iran said they found equipment that can enrich uranium (search)for weapons and it is far more advanced than anything Iran has admitted having. Ereli said the discovery is not consistent with a country that's truly trying to come clean on weapons programs.
"It is important that Iran stop its nuclear program, full stop, not pieces of it here -- talk about pieces of it here and hide pieces of it there. They need to get out of the nuclear weapons game completely," Ereli said.
Iran has responded that its equipment is just used to produce power, and insists its intentions are peaceful.
While Ereli said that cooperation from Iran with the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) has been "mixed at best," IAEA Director Mohamed El-Baradei said this week that Iran also has not fulfilled a promise to the British, French and German foreign ministers to suspend its uranium enrichment.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the Iranian government needs to hasten its steps toward admitting its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction (search).
"After 18 years of trying to deceive the International Atomic Energy Agency and the world, Iran is slowly -- still too slowly -- coming forward with answers needed by the IAEA and by the rest of the international community to make sure that they are not violating their obligations. It needs to pledge an end -- not just a suspension -- to all of its WMD programs and it must follow those promises with action," Powell told an audience at a conference at Princeton University.
Libya Making All the Right Moves (search)
Powell said Iran and other rogue nations should learn from Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi (search), who realized after years of trying to pursue weapons of mass destruction that it was not making his people better off nor elevating his country's status internationally.
He said al-Qaddafi made the correct decision to give up his pursuit and deal with the international community in a peaceful way.
"And now we are working in a spirit of cooperation and openness with President Colonel Qadhafi," Powell said.
Libya agreed to open up its facilities to inspectors, who have removed thousands of pounds of equipment. But an IAEA report made known Friday reveals just how far Libya had progressed in the pursuit of nuclear weapons, importing nuclear materials via the black market all the way up to the end of 2003.
It had also managed to process imported enriched uranium into a small amount of plutonium, the material needed to put together the core of a nuclear bomb.
According to remarks by diplomats familiar with the report, Tripoli had produced roughly seven pounds of plutonium, not enough to make a bomb, despite efforts as far back as 1985 to do so.
Libyan officials have maintained that the country never produced chemical, biological or nuclear weapons but acknowledged having the material, the expertise and the facilities.
The IAEA report, prepared by El-Baradei and being presented officially at a meeting next month, says Libya was in direct violation of agreements it made with the IAEA, an agency of the United Nations, and if failed to report a wide variety of secret nuclear activities.
Nonetheless, its recent cooperation is not going unnoticed by the United States, which could take steps soon to ease a ban on U.S. travel to Libya that has been in place for more than 20 years.
In November, Powell extended the prohibition on travel, but he also took the extraordinary step of allowing a review of that ban after 90 days. Usually, the prohibition is renewed annually.
Sunday will be the 90th day since the ban was renewed, and an official said that the administration could act to ease the ban, which prohibits Americans from using U.S. passports to travel to Libya.
Depending on Libya's future cooperation, including its revealing details of its weapons program and identifying suppliers, the United States may also make further moves in the future. Currently, Libya is listed as one of seven state sponsors of terrorism, which puts it in a category in which trade is restricted, U.S. oil companies can not operate there and U.S. economic aid is banned as is American support for Libyan loan requests in international lending institutions.
Fox News' Teri Schultz and Molley Henneberg and the Associated Press contributed to this report.