Saturday, February 7, 2009

Iran: A Familiar Face to Challenge Ahmadinejad

Will Mohammed Khatami run for a third term as president of Iran, or won't he? That's the question dominating the political conversation in Tehran ahead of the June poll, in which hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - who succeeded the reformist Khatami in 2005 - is standing for reelection. Pressure has been mounting on the former President to run again, with many seeing him as the only candidate able to defeat Ahmadinejad. There has even been an unprecedented public "Invite Khatami" campaign whose nostalgic theme song ends, "This time, we will truly appreciate your presence."
On Wednesday, the reluctant candidate who once personified Iran's reform movement gave those who had been lobbying him to run reason to celebrate. "I should fulfill my promises made to people and announce my readiness to run [in the elections] despite my personal wish," Khatami said somewhat non-bindingly in a meeting with non-governmental groups. (See images of health care in Tehran)
"Just take my word for it," assures Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy Interior Minister in Khatami's cabinet and currently a close aide. "In Khatami-speak, that's as close as it gets to a declaration before he announces his candidacy publicly, probably in the coming week."
Khatami had hoped to persuade his former presidential adviser, Mir-Hossein Moussavi, to run in his stead, but made clear that if Moussavi declined, he would be forced to accept the mantle of responsibility. According to Tajzadeh, the pressure on him, "combined with the terrible situation of the country," has made Khatami feel a social obligation to run against Ahmadinejad. A victory by the reformist leader who promoted domestic liberalization and accommodation with the West on the international front would mark a profound political shift from Ahmadinejad, whose foreign policy has been based on an uncompromising defiance. But victory is far from certain, and that may be one reason Khatami has agreed to run.
"The one thing he doesn't want to happen is for people to blame him later that he didn't offer himself when he was called upon and needed most," explains Tajzadeh. "The worst that can happen is he'll lose. At least he won't be blamed for not running."
Last week, Moussavi appeared to take himself out of the running. Having served in the now defunct post of prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war, Moussavi is well-liked by Iranians from across the political spectrum because he is credited with having managed the Islamic Republic through its most difficult years. But one political analyst requesting anonymity suggested that Moussavi's reluctance to run is due to his uncertainty over the extent of authority he would enjoy in the presidency. During his time as prime minister, he is known to have had disagreements with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had been president at the time and is now Supreme Leader.
The powers of the presidency also poses a key dilemma for Khatami. Supporters of his reform movement had been disillusioned during Khatami's two terms of office from 1997 until 2005, as clerical conservatives - backed by Ayatollah Khamenei - blocked most of his efforts to create a more open society.
In a small, closed meeting with fellow reformists about a month ago, the soft-spoken reformer is said to have shown an uncharacteristic fit of frustration, proclaiming that he would only run if he knew he can do the job, according to a person present who asked to remain anonymous.
Asked whether Khatami's decision to run follows fruitful talks with the Supreme Leader, Tajzadeh responds, "Let's just put it this way: If he had reached the conclusion that he wouldn't be invested with enough powers to run the country, he wouldn't declare his candidacy."
It was the electorate's frustration with the performance of the economy that propelled the populist Ahmadinejad to victory in 2005, but that frustration, if anything, has only grown worse in the course of his term of office, as soaring inflation has halved purchasing power in urban areas. And that could help Khatami.
"This time the expectations are much lower," says former vice- President Mohammad-Ali Abtahi, when asked why Khatami would have a chance of defeating the incumbent despite the disappointing note on which the reformist left office in 2005. "Expectations are low enough that people would be happy if he returned things to how they were at the start of Ahmadinejad's presidency... People know this is a critical moment for Iran because the Obama presidency is an opportunity this country needs to take advantage of. Whether we do or not, depends on [who is] president here."
Reformist activists say their unofficial polling show that Khatami would beat Ahmadinejad by a two-to-one margin. "The surveys may show great support for Khatami," says Majid Hosseini, a political analyst in the camp of the Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, "but the reformists are ignoring an important factor: our surveys show that those supporters won't actually show up at the polls to vote. They won't participate, because they have already been through this scenario for two terms and nothing happened."
Although most people questioned in an unscientific survey on the streets of Tehran said they won't vote for Ahmadinejad, many believed that the incumbent would still carry the rural areas. "He's been good to the provinces," says sportswear merchant Ali Paykani, 53. "He's laid water and gas pipelines, and given them agricultural loans. Here in the bazaar, no one wants him to be president again, but these elections are decided by the people in the provinces."
The high negative feelings towards both the incumbent and his predecessor may open the way for a third candidate. "Both Ahmadinejad and Khatami have strong opponents," says Qalibaf aide Hosseini, adding, "In Iran, opposing votes are more important than supporting votes. That's why a third candidate like Qalibaf may have better chances at winning."
Qalibaf has yet to announce whether he intends to run. Another reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, the head of the National Trust party, has already declared his candidacy, but Khatami has vowed that the reformists would unite behind a single candidate. "Both Karroubi and Khatami have enough political intelligence to know that if they both run, neither will get enough votes," says an editor at Karroubi's paper.
The stakes are as high as they've ever been, with a consensus among reformists and pragmatic conservatives that the fate of their country depends on being able to wrest the presidency away from Ahmadinejad. But whether that consensus translates into an effective electoral challenge remains to be seen.