Thursday, February 19, 2009

Khatami’s Bid to Retake Iranian Presidency in June Election Rattles Hard-Liners

Ex-President, a Moderate Reformer Who Remains Popular With Many Ordinary Iranians, Launches Drive to Oust Hard-Line Incumbent Ahmadinejad, whose Tenure Has Sparked Opposition Even Among Some Conservatives -- But Will the Mullahs Who Have the Final Say on Who's Eligible to be a Candidate Allow Him to Run?

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (center, wearing turban) walks during a ceremony last Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution in Tehran's Azadi Square. Khatami, a moderate reformer who remains popular, has declared his candidacy to oust the hard-line incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the country's June presidential election -- posing the most serious challenge yet to the country's hard-line establishment. (Photo: Caren Firouz/Reuters)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Thursday, February 19, 2009)


The National, Abu Dhabi

Iran’s powerful hard-liners are showing signs of jangled nerves and disunity after Mohammad Khatami, the country’s moderate former president, declared his intention to run in June’s presidential elections.

Ending months of speculation, Khatami announced Sunday that he would be stepping into the fray in a bid to secure a third term in office. President of the Islamic Republic from 1997 to 2005, Khatami was Iran’s great reformist, a moderate whose presidency ultimately foundered on the country’s powerful conservative resistance.

His intention to dislodge the controversial firebrand incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, however, will be welcomed by the West -- not least Washington.

President Obama, having made a firm commitment to engage Iran with diplomacy, would be keen to deal with the comparatively liberal Khatami, as opposed to Ahmadinejad, who has forged a worldwide reputation as a Holocaust denier and a lover of all things nuclear.

That Khatami wishes to step back into the lion’s den is testament to a man who is widely seen in conservative circles as a threat to the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, and in the eyes of some reformists as a conviction politician who, nevertheless, bottled it when it mattered most.


Supporters of the hard-line incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, hoped that the potent challenge posed to their monopoly on power by Khatami, the charismatic politician-philosopher who still retains some of his rock star-like popularity, would unite conservatives behind the president.

But a hard-line member of the Iranian Majlis (Parliament)  revealed last weekend that some conservatives are ready to ditch the populist Ahmadinejad as their most obvious candidate -- if they can persuade Khatami to stand down.

The lawmaker, Ali Motahhari, said the plan had been discussed with many “Principalists,” the flattering term hard-liners use to proclaim themselves as exclusively loyal devotees of the principles of the Islamic Revolution -- and all agreed.

“However, the pursuit of the plan will depend on Khatami’s withdrawal from the election,” he told Iran’s conservative Mehr news agency.

If so, the Principalists would put forward two candidates other than Ahmadinejad. The scheme, however, would be dropped if Khatami refused, Motahhari added.


His reluctant entry into the electoral arena followed months of soul-searching, as well as persistent cajoling by fellow reformists who insisted he was duty-bound to the country and its people to run.

"It has taken a lot of pushing for him to run," says Professor Ali Ansari, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "He was only prepared to do it when he realized the support that he had . . . [which includes] his alliance with former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which is a significant one."

The 65-year-old Khatami views the presidency as a stressful burden -- made more so by Ahmadinejad's bellicose stance toward Israel and the West in his four-year tenure -- but he is most likely to cold-shoulder any such self-serving approach from a faction of the hard-line camp.

Analysts, including the U.S.-Iranian expert Trita Parsi, have highlighted the contrast between Khatami’s perceived lack of derring-do with the current president’s brio, suggesting that the only way Khatami can win over Iran’s voting public is by adopting some of his adversaries’ boldness.

Yet, boldness should not be confused with confrontation, and, in a foreign policy sense at least, confrontation has almost been Ahmadinejad’s raison d’ĂȘtre.

Khatami who, in contrast to his more populist opponent, heartily subscribes to the republican element of the Islamic republic, will require a little extra inner steel and outward drive and gusto if elected to an unprecedented third term. But he is no stranger to the rough and tumble of politics and knows what it takes to pull off explosive election victories.


Despite evident fractures within the conservative camp, Ahmadinejad remains its likeliest candidate, at least for the moment. He retains wide support among the security services and with the rural poor, to whom he has promised cheap loans and development projects. So far, his candidacy also has the invaluable backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Ahmadinejad’s inflationary economic policies have long worried many fellow conservatives, who fretted about public discontent well before the plunge in oil prices. On foreign policy, leading pragmatic Principlists have grumbled publicly at Ahmadinejad’s reckless rhetoric against Israel and the West, which has heightened international suspicions of Iran’s cherished nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad also has come under fire from conservatives at the more radical end of the hard-line spectrum, such as the member of Parliament, Motahhari, who is preparing his seemingly quixotic bid to persuade Khatami to stand down.

The lawmaker has been stridently critical of Ahmadinejad’s interest in pursuing the possibility of better relations with the United States.

"The president’s letter to Obama is a humiliation for the nation of Iran," he thundered after Ahmadinejad sent an unprecedented message of congratulations to the new American president on his election victory in November.

The Iranian president, with Ayatollah Khamenei’s tacit backing, has brushed aside such criticism: he knows that spurning Obama’s avowed readiness for unconditional talks would lose him votes in June.

Most Iranians, despite ingrained suspicion of Washington, are intrigued by the new American president, who they believe -- based, in part, on the fact that Obama spent four of his formative years as a child in Indonesia, the world's most populus Muslim country; has relatives in his father's native Kenya who are Muslims; and that he has gone out of his way to reach out to the Muslim world -- represents a historic opportunity to end three decades of enmity that should not be missed.

Ahmadinejad knows that it is an opportunity Khatami would not let slip. Last week, the Iranian president declared he was ready for a dialogue with the United States based on "mutual respect."


But rumblings of discontent in the right-wing camp suggest the conservatives might choose a more polished figure than Ahmadinejad to make the most of any opening with Washington.

More pragmatic conservatives, such as Ali Larijani, the powerful Parliament speaker, or Mohammad Qalibaf, the smooth and energetic mayor of Tehran, are poised to emerge as contenders, particularly if either is anointed to run by Ayatollah Khamenei.

The supreme leader could decide both men have a better chance than Ahmadinejad of checking the reformist resurgence -- and of steering Iran out of its increasingly costly isolation. Ayatollah Khamenei would easily justify any such concession to public and international opinion as a necessary expedient to "preserve the revolution."


Khatami, meanwhile, is steeling himself for what could be a literally bruising electoral battle with his hard-line opponents. A fundamentalist street mob attempted to rough him up at last week’s celebrations marking the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. "Death to Khatami! We do not want American government!" they chanted as his devoted supporters shielded him from serious injury.

Guarding himself from hard-line attacks on the rhetorical front, Khatami has tacitly confirmed his conviction that Iran should not renounce its drive for nuclear power in exchange for "carrots" from the West.

"The pursuit of change should not lead to conflict of interests but to the realisation of the objectives sought by the nation" is how he worded this in an address to leading reformists last week.

Khatami maintained that the best way to convince the West that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful in nature is through subtle diplomacy. Attacking Ahmadinejad’s approach, Khatami declared in September: "Aggressive and blistering rhetoric plays into the hands of the enemy, harming the country and the system."

The former president is also defending himself staunchly against Iran’s conservative-dominated media, which maintains that his reformist agenda to liberalise the country’s politics and society will undermine the Islamic Revolution.

His message, echoing that of his troubled tenure as president between 1997 and 2005, is that he is an insider of Iran’s Islamic system but committed to reforms to deliver the freedoms that were promised, but never delivered, by the revolution.

"We have said time and again that we are members of this [Islamic] system and support the leader and the constitution. We do not want to betray those who lost their lives for our country," he told the Iranian business daily, Donya-ye Eqtesad last Thursday. "We know some believe we oppose the system: I have never done so and I never will."


Although one cannot expect too much change in the foreign policy department –- certainly not straight away –- if Khatami succeeds in unseating Ahmadinejad, there is one major diplomatic row, other than the nuclear one, which has had Western leaders choking into their soup bowls for the past four years, that will almost certainly be consigned to the scrap heap: Ahmadinejad's virulent hostility toward Israel and his denial of the Holocaust.

"Khatami has already said that he accepts the Holocaust as an historical fact and that it is a tragedy that should be recognized," says Professor Ansari. "He is very popular among the Iranian Jewish community, who see him as a very sympathetic figure."

If Khatami should triumph in June, such intimations would, in the context of the decidedly frosty relationship between Tehran and Washington, provide for at least one area of mutual agreement.

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Volume IV, Number 14
Special Repport Copyright 2009, Abu Dhabi Media Company, LLC
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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