After a prolonged period of deliberation, rumors and speculation, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami has decided to join the 2009 presidential elections in Iran. Will he stand a chance?
Khatami, who was Iran’s president from 1997-2005, is identified as a ‘reformist’ (eslâh-talab) on the Iranian political scene. Under him, Iran did experience an initial ‘Tehran Spring’ from 1997-99, where young Iranians, women and ethnic minorities enjoyed a significant relaxation in cultural restrictions and where the press, civil society, art and pro-democratic organizations blossomed. The impact of this period was profound and forever changed Iranian society.
However, from the student uprising of July 1999 onwards, the conservative forces in Iranian society, headed by the Supreme Leader, the traditionalist right wing and the institutions they control – including the Revolutionary Guards, paramilitary Basij, intelligence and the judiciary – started a clampdown on the reformist movement. As Khatami and his allies (in the so-called Participation Front coalition) experienced one defeat after another in their struggles with the conservatives, and as the conservative Guardians Council constantly obstructed reformist legislation, Khatami’s popularity dwindled significantly. In the end, his image was close to ruined.
Now that Khatami has finally proclaimed his candidature, Iranian and international media is buzzing with discussion. Here, I will briefly take a look at some of this discussion. Hopefully I will find the time to follow up soon with a piece on the conservative camp and Ahmadinejad’s prospects in the future elections.
Khatami has proclaimed that
“Right now, our duty is to correct the present situation and the way to that goal is through elections. Of course, no-one will claim to [be able to perform] a miracle, and no-one will declare himself as a champion”
Indeed, Khatami did not launch a significant new program or hold an historic speech when he announced his candidature. It seems he is trying to be cool-headed, and lower the expectations of certain parts of the opposition. In respect to this sensible forecast, he can to some extent be compared to Obama – reminding his supporters of the immense tasks in front of him if he should be elected.
But the comparisons to the US do not end here. Juan Cole writes
“You have an economy in shambles, increasing international isolation, the danger of further wars, an unpopular millenarian president who thinks God put him in office to reshape the world, and an alarmed public across the board. And you have a liberal challenger to the woeful status quo who is known for an ability to reach out to conservatives and a dislike of social polarization, who is wildly popular with youth, women and liberals, but who might attract even conservative votes.
Sound familiar? I am talking about Iran.”
Quoting a speech by hard liner Ayatollah Jennati, Cole pointed to the fact that the conservatives see Khatami as a threat:
“The Iranian hard right is most of all afraid that Khatami, if he is reelected, will establish good relations with the US. Ahmad Jannati, a hardliner and chairman of the Council of Guardians (kind of a clerical Senate) told the reformist paper E’temad last week:
‘The people do not want a non-Islamic element to come to power in this country.” He added: “The person who wants to become the next president should in the first place be Islamic, and enjoy the characteristics required for Islamic governance, namely orientation towards justice and devotion to serve the people. In addition, he should fight against corruption and (global) arrogance. Naturally, such a person cannot show a green light to America.’
He went on say: ‘At the moment, with the change in the American administration, a number of members of grouplets (hostile opposition groups), who should really be in prisons, have been exploiting their freedom in the Islamic Republic, and have gone to America and have given its officials some hope about the restoration of relations (with Iran).” Jannati added: “If the pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran, then we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state.’”
However, before dealing with such profound issues of foreign policy as relations to the US, Khatami have many other hurdles to worry about.
On Gooya, Babak Dad argued that for Khatami, a 100-day marathon with great obstacles ahead has started, and wrote:
“Now, Mr. Khatami is faced with dozens of important questions, that he will have to answer before June 11: questions, that have been troubling the minds of society, and until [people] receive answers, they will not place new trust in him …
[Khatami] wants to prove that he is ‘another Khatami’ and that he will not repeat some of the faults of the reformist government. The first signs of this ‘other Khatami’ have become clear already. But it is not enough; because more than any other, he has realized, that the ‘current Khatami’ will not win votes and is in need of ‘change’ …
Khatami has announced that he will join the presidential race with a new team and that their slogan will be “Political progress – no! Economic progress – yes!”. No doubt, this has a double function: first of all, Khatami signals to his conservative opponents that he will not aim at fundamental reform that would threaten the power of the clergy or the fundamental nature of the Islamic Republic; secondly, it is a way to recognize that the reason for Ahmadinejad’s victory and the reformist defeat in 2005 was that the reformists failed to recognize the economy as the main concern of the broad population. Now that Ahmadinejad has not been able to fix the economy, Khatami is hoping that he can present himself as the one who can bring real solutions.
However the question, as Babak Dad points out, is then: is this the right strategy? I.e., will Khatami be able to present himself as a savior to the many Iranians who see inflation, unemployment and rising poverty as the main problem? Or will Khatami alienate his potential core of supporters by downgrading political reform? The question of whether or not this “change of strategy” is correct “will soon be the greatest discussion” among people, concludes Babak Dad.
On the Âgâhsâzi website, a former political advisor to Khatami, Morteza Mobalegh, pointed to three major challenges ahead:
“The first challenge or worry concerns the widespread reactions, unethical actions and sabotages, which has started long ago, and will be strengthened in the future. These acts of disruption stems from certain groups, mafia rings and extremists in this country”.
It seems Mobalegh was talking about the conservative forces. The second worry, argued Mobalegh, is the question of “healthy elections”: in other words, the fear that elections will be rigged or otherwise manipulated by the abovementioned forces. The third worry was that of bias and partiality in the media as well as in funding and logistical support for the conservatives: in other words, the support of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i – through his massive machinery that includes institutions and state-run media throughout the political landscape – for Ahmadinejad.
However, there is also the question of intra-reformist competition. Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, seen as a ‘moderate, has already stated that he will not join Khatami in a coalition (even though this might change). Karrubi seems to be a candidate at every presidential and parliamentary election, and in 2005, he gained 17% and thus came in third after Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani. Karrubi has build up a strong base of voters, particularly in certain regions and amongst the ethnic minority of Lurs. Indeed, Karrubi has presented himself as the champion of ethnic rights in the 2009 elections.
Another potential rival is Mir-Hossein Musavi, who was prime minister after the revolution until this post was removed in 1989. There seems to have been quite some buzz around Musavi lately, especially amongst some reformist students. It also seems Musavi was very angry at Khatami’s decision to announce his candidature now. Indeed, (although it may very well be one of those anti-reformist ‘sabotages’ mentioned above) the state-run Kayhân daily reported this morning that Khatami had in effect turned around on his promise to support Musavi – and that Khatami had caught Musavi by surprise with his sudden announcement. It remains to be seen if Musavi will also run.
It also remains to be seen what the ‘center’ of the political scene – the forces around former president and powerful cleric Ayatollah Rafsanjani and figures such as Hassan Rowhani – will do. Will they support Khatami’s bid or will they rather present their own candidate? It seems Rafsanjani’s brother, Mohammad Hashemi, who is not a cleric, might run as a candidate for the centrist / ‘technocratic’ group Executives of Construction (Hezb-e kârgozârân-e sâzandegi). Again, this is something we will see within the next couple of months.
So, the question is: with at least three ‘reformist’ candidates, will Khatami stand a chance? In an interview with the exile-Iranian Rooz Online, Mohammad Tavassoli – leader of the political bureau of the more or less tolerated opposition group Freedom Movement (Nehzat-e âzâdi) – stated that this could be a serious problem.
The reformist camp, said Tavassoli, “must choose a single candidate”. If not, “the conservatives will certainly and undoubtedly win the future elections”. Khatami will have to cooperate and deliberate with the other candidates, argued Tavassoli, who presented the recent presidential elections in the United States as a good example of sound election ethics and pragmatism.
Yet, some aspects also speak for Khatami’s possible success. On Tehran Bureau, Golnoush Niknejad writes that
“Despite Khatami’s failures in his two terms, those who want change in Iran must realize that he is still the most likely reformist candidate to prevail upon the Guardian Council, a powerful organization charged with vetting candidates for office, among other constitutional powers”.
In an email, Iran scholar and Informed Comment contributor, Farideh Farhi of University of Honolulu wrote that Khatami
“… will make an argument that despite the protestation to the contrary his foreign policy placed Iran in a better place in the world, his economic policies brought inflation under relative control (relative in comparison to what has happened under Ahmadinejad) and reduced wasteful spending, and cultural policies left the country more open.”
“Whether or not [Khatami] remains a candidate until the end or leave the scene in favor of another reformist candidate (either Karrubi or perhaps even Mussavi), Khatami’s entrance will allow Iranians to engage in a conversation about two divergent governing styles and policies. To be sure, not every policy but certainly many policies. More importantly, if … [the elections] ends up being a two-way race between [Khatami] and Ahmadinejad, the Iranian electorate will also be faced with a choice based on policy differences and governing styles.”
In the view of Trita Parsi – Iran expert, author and president of the National Iranian American Council, writing for Huffington Post – Khatami faces three main challenges: firstly, he must “show greater strength and willingness to challenge the political boundaries”; secondly, he “must be able to mobilize his base – the more educated classes in Iran – and make sure they vote”; and thirdly,
”if elected, Khatami must show the courage to ruffle some feathers to implement his program. He has been given an undeserved second chance, an unexpected opportunity to run once more, which is largely due to the way Ahmadinejad’s poor performances has created nostalgia about Khatami. He won’t be given a third chance.”
Indeed, Khatami’s entry into the presidential race is of great importance – no matter what cynics and pessimists will claim. It is now up to “the Smiling Mullah” to re-invent himself and his political agenda: and to enter a vigorous battle with Iran’s current president and the neo-conservatives around and behind him.