Iran’s elections, scheduled for February 20, have provoked the gravest political crisis in that country in twenty years. The conservative, clerical Guardian Council sparked the turmoil in January by barring nearly half of the roughly 8,000 candidates for various national and local posts from running. A majority of those excluded were from the reformist camp associated with President Mohammad Khatami, including eighty-three sitting members of Parliament. Outraged members staged a sit-in, and when that failed, about a third of them resigned.

Khatami, famed for refusing to confront the hard-liners, at first pleaded with Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei to intervene. Only a few hundred reformists were reinstated, however. At first Khatami seemed prepared to postpone the elections, but when Khamenei denounced this plan, Khatami folded. It may not matter. Some observers felt that the reformists were likely to do poorly even had they not been barred. In last year’s Tehran election, turnout was low because the bright hopes of the late 1990s for significant cultural and social change have faded. Conservative candidates were returned by a handful of voters.

Khatami and his team are determined to work within the system. The party closest to him has even refused to join a boycott of the elections. Many in his generation were scarred by the violent struggles of 1978-83, in which thousands died. For this reason, they refuse to go to the streets or to provoke a decisive split in the ruling class. Their weapons so far have been speeches, appeals, sit-ins, resignations and the occasional hunger strike. That these can be effective in Iran’s “moral economy” was implicitly recognized when hard-liners threatened those who resigned with prosecution.

Khatami has backed away from his earlier devotion to “civil society.” He now speaks of “communal society.” Stability and national unity are more important, in other words, than openness (although he has called election restrictions “a threat to the nation”). This timidity has provoked a rift with the more militant student movements, which mounted protests last summer that were put down with some violence. Khatami did nothing.

The office of the Supreme Jurisprudent is the most important branch of Iran’s theocratic government, and it dominates all the others. Khatami is supported in Parliament by reformists of the Second of Khordad Front, who won 189 of the 290 seats in 2000. More than 100 of the reform Parliament’s laws, however, were struck down by Khamenei’s Guardian Council, and many newspapers have also been closed. Reformists who questioned the absolute powers of Khamenei have been jailed. Reformists allege that the exclusion of so many of their candidates is a parliamentary coup plotted by conservatives two years ago.

The Second of Khordad and its close allies favor economic liberalization and privatization, as well as increased personal freedoms, including those of women, and have criticized the corruption and arbitrary power of the ruling clerics. But the front has been unable to implement policies that would address the country’s high unemployment rate or the high poverty rate (40 percent). Reformers have been unable to improve the lot of most Iranians, either because they have been blocked by conservative clerics or because they do not make bread-and-butter issues their top priority. Iran’s workers, for instance, lack the right to strike or to form independent unions. In late January, when copper workers in southeastern Iran went on strike, the government sent in SWAT teams that simply shot down four of them and wounded many others. Nearly a third of Iranians work in agriculture, and a quarter in industry, and the reformists have done little for any of them.

The clerical conservatives who are likely to dominate Parliament will suffer from profound illegitimacy, both because of the unfairness of the election and because turnout will almost certainly be small. Over the next four years, they will be held accountable for the economy. They may come to regret their parliamentary coup. For the hard-liners to try to rule an increasingly young, restive, urban population without a popular mandate could well set the country up for substantial unrest. After all, the younger activists, the ones who demonstrated last summer, do not remember the Great Terror of 1981-83.

In the meantime, the Bush Administration should accommodate demands in neighboring Iraq that upcoming elections there be as open and direct as humanly possible. If Iraq’s Shiites demonstrably benefit from free and fair elections, they will present a devastating practical critique of the Iranian system. That success will do more to undermine theocratic dictatorship than anything the United States could hope to accomplish through more direct intervention in Tehran’s affairs.