TEHRAN, Iran – More than a year after the last major opposition protest, Iran's hard-liners are intensifying efforts to eliminate the pro-reform movement from the country's political landscape by demanding their candidates be barred from running in next year's legislative polls.
The calls by key figures in newspaper interviews published Wednesday signaled a new round of confrontation between Iran's opposing political forces, a clash that exploded into months of street violence after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
Hard-liners are renewing their accusations that those who challenged the presidential vote and later confronted Iran's ruling system are traitors in league with the country's enemies who sought to overthrow the political and clerical leadership.
"Basically, there is no need for the participation of these people in the elections," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was quoted as saying in several newspapers. "They've had dreams that won't be materialized. Authorities and people don't trust them at all."
Jannati heads a powerful constitutional watchdog called the Guardian Council that screens candidates. His stance is a strong indication that the hard-line body will disqualify reformists from running in parliamentary elections expected to be held in February 2012. No exact date has been set.
In the 2008 parliamentary elections, the council disqualified thousands of reformist candidates.
Reformist politicians themselves appear ready to boycott the next polls unless they are assured they will be free and fair. Former President Mohammad Khatami said groups calling for political and social change were also demanding that political prisoners be freed and that the constitutional rights of all citizens be respected.
Tension between Iran's reformists and hard-liners descended into street fights over the opposition's claims that the June 2009 presidential elections were spoiled by fraud. The opposition says its leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was the real winner.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in support of Mousavi, and some powerful clerics sided with the opposition. The wave of protests was the biggest challenge faced by Iran's clerical leadership since it came to power in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
But a heavy crackdown suppressed the protests, and many in the opposition — from midlevel political figures to street activists, journalists and human rights workers — were arrested. The opposition has not been able to hold a major protest since December 2009.
The new calls by hard-liners point to a significant push to shut the opposition out of politics completely.
Hossein Shariatmadari, manager of the hard-line daily Kayhan, called Khatami a member of "enemy fifth column," and said the minority reformist lawmakers in parliament are traitors who must be disqualified from running in the next elections.
Shariatmadari, a representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Khatami and Mousavi were speaking the language of Iran's enemies who sold out their country over the presidential vote.
Hard-line lawmaker Mohammad Taqi Rahbar called Khatami's demands for next year's vote "ridiculous," saying the reformist leader was "seeking to revive the dead political current."
Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, said Friday that reformist leaders are not in a position to set conditions and it was only a matter of time before they are put on trial for the postelection unrest.
So far, authorities have stopped short of trying to jail the reform movement's top leaders — Mousavi, Khatami and fellow candidate Mahdi Karroubi — apparently out of concern it could spark a new wave of protests and fuel the opposition.
But a series of recent public warnings by hard-liners that they could be tried may be a sign that Iran's Islamic clerical leadership believes the opposition has been sufficiently suppressed that their arrest would not spark a significant backlash.
Addressing minority reformist lawmakers last week, Khatami predicted the opposition would win a majority of parliament's seats if its candidates are allowed to run.
"Despite many restrictions and claims that reformists have no place in the heart of the people, more than half of the approved candidates won seats in the (2008) vote ... the minority reformist lawmakers in the parliament now represent the will of the majority of the Iranian people," he said.