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.

# # #

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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Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama's Call for Bipartisanship Falls on Deaf Ears Among Left, Right Hard-Liners

The President Must Face the Cold Reality That the Chasm in the World Views of Ideologically-Driven Liberals and Conservatives on Capitol Hill -- and of Their Equally Hard-Line Allies in the Blogosphere, Cable News Channels, Major Newspapers and Talk Radio -- Is Too Deep to be Bridged and There's Little He Can Do About It

President Obama has made it clear that he's fed up with the the increasingly bitter partisan clashes between Democrats and Republicans and is determined to bring an end to the warfare. But liberals within his own Democratic Party, as well as conservative Republicans -- not to mention their allies in the Internet blogosphere, on the cable news channels, in major newspapers and on talk radio -- are in no mood to back down. With the Democrats now firmly in charge of both the White House and Congress -- and with public opinion, for now, on the president's side -- liberals are determined to put their own stamp on government policy, while conservatives are equally determined to preserve the policies of the previous Bush administration. (Cartoon by Ben Hoffman/

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, February 16, 2009)


"Post-partisanship? Forget about it! The people spoke loud and clear last November: They wanted change after eight years of right-wing Republican rule. We promised the people change. They elected us to deliver it -- and by God, we're going to keep our promise. If the Republicans don't like it, that's too damn bad!"

* * *

You're not likely to hear that above statement uttered publicly by any Democrat on Capitol Hill anytime soon. But there's little doubt that many Democrats -- particularly in the House of Representatives -- are thinking that.

Their allies in the liberal Internet blogosphere, on MSNBC and in major newspapers have no compunction about saying it openly and loudly -- and are determined to keep up pressure on the Democrats to make good on their promise for change.

Not surprisingly, Republicans -- still reeling from having taken their worst ballot-box drubbing since 1964 -- have hardened into a fierce opposition force, fighting the president and his party tooth and nail, despite lacking the votes, at least in the House, to stop the Democrats from pushing through their agenda.

Egged on by their equally loud allies in the conservative Internet blogosphere, on Fox News Channel and on talk radio (particularly Rush Limbaugh), Republicans appear bent on preserving many of the policies of the previous Bush administration, despite their massive repudiation by the voters in last November's election.


This partisan schism was made crystal clear on Friday, when not a single House Republican -- and only three of their Senate colleagues -- crossed the aisle to vote for President Obama's $789 billion economic stimulus package. Praising its passage as a "major milestone on our road to recovery," Obama is scheduled to sign the bill into law tomorrow (Tuesday).

Just hours before the vote, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear that her Democratic caucus was going to move forward with the measure with or without support from Republicans, brushing off calls for a bipartisan consensus as mere "process," hardly relevant to its passage.

But that's not all.

Democrats and their allies bombarded the districts of vulnerable House Republicans in the economically hard-pressed Midwest with a blitz of negative radio and TV ads, blasting them for their opposition to the stimulus bill and accusing them of condemning millions of Americans -- including their own constituents -- to long-term unemployment.

The spots demanded that GOP members of Congress "stop saying no" and support their constituents by supporting the stimulus package.

The Republicans quickly fired back with Web videos of their own, including a controversial, profanity-laced spot posted by the office of House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Ohio) that blasted one of the bill's chief backers, a public-employee union.

Meanwhile, Representative Tom Price (R-Georgia), chairman of GOP Study Committee, stood outside Speaker Pelosi's office last Wednesday and filmed a video in which he claimed, "There are more shady deals going on behind closed doors."


While the public strongly approves of the president's job performance nearly a month after his inauguration, as evidenced by recently-released opinion polls, Obama knows that the success of his presidency rests on his ability to turn the economy around and that even thornier battles in Congress lay ahead as he turns his attention toward, among other things, putting together a budget for the 2010 fiscal year and reforming the nation's health care system.

This is why Obama has been so eager to bring an end to the partisan mudslinging. But whether the president likes it or not, it's not likely to go away for many years to come. The political bloggers (including, to be candid, this one), the talking heads on the cable news channels and, of course, the fire-breathing rabble-rousers of talk radio -- the modern-day "nattering nabobs of negativism" as the late former Vice President Spiro Agnew famously branded the mainstream news media in the 1970s -- will surely see to that.

Not to mention the leaders of the two major parties in Congress. That became abundantly clear by the slashing rhetorical back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans in the House.

"Their strategy," said Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) of the Republicans, "is to be obstructionist no matter how inclusive the process is."

"They're [Republicans] not interested in building anything," said Representative Jim McDermott (D-Washington), a liberal member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "Their only goal is seek and destroy. You can't have bipartisanship with [only] one side.

"Once we [Democrats] put [the Republicans] back the minority," McDermot continued, "they've gone back to the [Newt] Gingrich model," referring to the former Republican House speaker who led the GOP's 1994 electoral revolt and pushed through an ambitious conservative agenda.


Republicans quickly fired back, accusing the Democratic majority of shoving aside GOP members' concerns -- and their complaints weren't limited to the stimulus bill.

"It doesn’t have to be this way, but Speaker Pelosi continues to operate in a narrow, partisan way," said Representative Patrick McHenry (R-North Carolina), a conservative first elected in 2004 and, at age 33, one of the youngest members of Congress. "In the end, she’s undermining Obama’s pledge of bipartisanship."

Representative Darrell Issa (R-California) accused House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wisconsin) of failing to divulge that his son Craig was lobbying him on the economic recovery package, raising the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, Representative John Carter (R-Texas) offered a resolution calling on House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-New York) to step down from his post while an ethics probe into his personal finances continues.


While no one in Washington realistically expected Obama’s pledge to "fix our broken politics" would be met quickly or easily, the partisan divide separating Democrats and Republicans goes far beyond traditional party rivalry. It is, in reality, a 40-year-old and increasingly bitter ideological war between liberals and conservatives, with liberals wielding heavy influence in the Democratic Party and conservatives controlling the GOP with an iron grip.

This take-no-prisoners attitude by both sides is a stark and rude reminder to Obama that ideology really does matter in modern American politics. Indeed, ideology matters far more than party affiliation or the lack thereof, as evidenced by the fact that many moderate voters -- perhaps a majority of them -- identify themselves as independents, making up nearly a third of the electorate and holding the balance of power in elections.

The bottom line: Moderate voters don't like either party to swing too far to the left or to the right. They've abandoned the Democrats in the past when the party moved too far to the left. Now they've abandoned the GOP for having moved too far to the right, even as the Democrats -- slowly -- have moved toward the center, but are still under the strong influence of the party's liberal wing on hot-button social issues, such as abortion, the separation of church and state and the legalization of marriage for gay and lesbian couples.


Even the president himself, while going out of his way to reach out to Republicans in what turned out to be a futile effort, save for three GOP senators, to win their support for his stimulus package, found himself compelled to fire a partisan shot at Republicans in response to their criticism of the measure -- particularly their claim that it spends too much of the taxpayer's money.

"First of all, when I hear that from folks who presided over a doubling of the national debt, then I just want them to not engage in some revisionist history," Obama told fellow Democrats at a party retreat in Virginia. "I inherited the deficit that we have right now, and I inherited the economic crisis that we have right now!"

It was a bluntly-worded reminder to the Republicans that when they controlled Congress for six of the eight years of the Bush presidency, they expanded government spending by hundreds of billions of dollars to fight the "war on terror" -- while at the same time cutting taxes on the wealthiest one percent of Americans.

The result was a massive draining of the Treasury that far exceeded that of the Reagan administration in the 1980s -- obliterating a $100 billion budget surplus that Bush inherited in 2001 from his predecessor, Bill Clinton, and racking up the largest budget deficit in the nation's history: A staggering $1 trillion.

That's trillion, with a T.

Nonetheless, Obama told his fellow Democrats that even as they had, for all intents and purposes, given up on a new, bipartisan approach with the GOP, he had not. "Hopefully, the tone that I've taken, which has been consistently civil and respectful, will pay some dividends over the long term," he said. "There are going to be areas where we disagree, and there are going to be areas where we agree."

But with right-wing hard-liners in the GOP still insisting that their party "not surrender" their "conservative principles" even as the party embarks on a effort to expand its electoral appeal -- which, given its image as a party dominated by conservative Southern white males, it must do for the sake of its long-term survival -- it remains to be seen whether a new bipartisan atmosphere can truly take root in Washington without the GOP having to first undergo a bitter, ugly internal power struggle between what few moderates remain in the party and allied fiscal conservatives on one side and the right-wing social and religious hard-liners and allied "neoconservatives" on the other.


And then there is the political earthquake set off late Thursday by the sudden decision of Senator Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire) to withdraw his nomination by Obama to be the next commerce secretary.

Unlike past Cabinet nominees who withdrew in the face of unexpected controversies exploding in their faces, Gregg appears to have withdrawn for purely partisan political reasons, declaring that there were irreconcilable differences between himself and the president on the stimulus bill.

Seeing himself as also having deep philosophical differences with the Obama administration on other policy matters, Gregg -- who also announced that he would not seek re-election to his Senate seat next year -- said that it had gradually dawned on him that being a mouthpiece for the administration "wasn't my personality, after 30 years of being myself."

Gregg, who abstained from voting on the Senate version of stimulus bill last week out of deference to Obama while a Cabinet nominee, voted against the compromise version of the measure on Friday after announcing his withdrawal.

The 61-year-old Gregg would have been the third Republican to join Obama's bipartisan Cabinet, after Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who retired from Congress last year after representing his hometown of Peoria, Illinois for 14 years.

Gregg is the second nominee for commerce secretary to pull out. The president's first choice, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, abruptly withdrew after The New York Times revealed on December 19 that he was under investigation by a federal grand jury amid allegations that Richardson gave lucrative contracts to a California financier in return for contributions to a political action committee headed by the governor.


Meanwhile, the nomination of Representative Hilda Solis (D-California) to be the next labor secretary has run into a filibuster by Republican senators who object to Solis' role as a board member and treasurer of American Rights at Work, a non-profit group that is lobbying Congress to to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed amendment to the Depression-era National Labor Relations Act of 1935 that would make it easier for workers to form a union or to join an existing union.

Solis won the approval of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -- with just two negative votes -- after more than a month of delays over questions about tax liens that her husband recently paid and her association with ARW.

A cloture vote is scheduled for February 24 -- the same day that Obama is scheduled to deliver a State of the Union-style address to a joint session of Congress. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to cut off debate and advance Solis' nomination to a final confirmation vote.

The EFCA, which would repeal portions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act governing unionization drives and override many state "right-to-work" laws, is a high-priority item for the AFL-CIO, along with two of the nation's three largest independent unions: the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The labor federation is anxious to stem a nearly 30-year decline in union membership among America's workforce, a decline many attribute to the mass firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when the controllers' union, PATCO, refused to comply with Reagan's executive order under the Taft-Hartley Act to return to work.

All three labor organizations also strongly support the Solis nomination.

(Conspicuously, the nation's largest independent union, the three-million-member National Education Association, has not taken a position on either the Solis nomination or the EFCA.)

So despite the president's call for an end to "the smallness of our politics" and his criticism of the "preference for scoring cheap political points," it's not going to go away any time soon.

To the contrary, it's all but certain to intensify when the president unveils his first budget -- and is all but guaranteed to really flare up when Obama gets his first opportunity to nominate federal judges -- especially if that first judicial nomination is to the Supreme Court.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 13
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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