by Yasaman Baji
via IPS News
With just over two months before the Jun. 14 presidential election, Iranians remain unclear about which candidates will be approved by the Guardian Council to compete, let alone who has the best chance of winning.
To date, nearly 20 former officials have either declared or expressed interest in running.
But talk of a possible run by former president Mohammad Khatami has sparked excitement and hope, at least among that part of the Iranian population that feels disenfranchised by the contested 2009 presidential election and the repression that followed.
At the same time, there has also been harsh criticism and angry reaction on the part of conservatives, as well as some reformists who see his potential candidacy as a betrayal of the two 2009 presidential candidates, Mir Hossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, who have spent most of the past four years under house arrest.
The campaign to recruit Khatami was confirmed in a public letter issued in mid-March and signed by 91 individuals, including a number of prominent reformists, calling on him to become a candidate. The following day, the Reformist Front’s Coordination Council, the most important collection of reformist parties and organisations, echoed the call.
These appeals are based on the belief that Khatami remains the most popular politician in Iran. His flaws, including his timidity in confronting unelected institutions and the state’s security apparatus during his tenure (1997-2005), are widely acknowledged.
But the hope is that a substantial part of the electorate will rally behind him given their fondness for his urbane and gracious demeanour and the possibility of returning the country to an environment which is more open politically and culturally less rigid — an environment where economic and foreign policy-making is less erratic and bombastic than under his successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nonetheless, the call for Khatami’s candidacy has angered many radical reformers, particularly those now in exile who see him as an ineffective leader and his candidacy as detrimental to the larger necessity of fundamental change that they say the Islamic Republic requires.
But their call for an electoral boycott is not shared by most reformists inside the country. To them, the memory of Khatami’s presidency offers a sufficient alternative for participation in the electoral process.
According to a well-known novelist, speaking to IPS on condition of anonymity, “The civil, social, and cultural freedoms of the Khatami period are a nostalgic memory for all of us. He has left a defendable record of governing as an intellectual.”
Similarly, many in the private sector remember his economic policies, despite weaknesses and setbacks, as having laid the basis of a sounder economic decision-making process.
“During the Khatami presidency,” a member of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Mines told IPS, “our path to trade with the world was opened, production and economic activities of the youth were given more attention, and most importantly the Oil Stabilisation Fund was established” to support the private sector during economic downturns.
But not all support for Khatami is based on nostalgia. There are also political and tactical considerations.
His candidacy increases the chance of disparate reformist factions coalescing behind one candidate. In addition, keeping him at the centre of attention maximises the impact of the support he may eventually give to another reformist candidate. This is what happened in 2009 when Khatami withdrew his candidacy and publicly supported Mussavi.
Khatami himself has remained non-committal. “You do not need to worry about my decision,” he told an audience of university students recently. “I am just one individual in the great reformist collective. I have my own opinion but in practice I also respect the collective decision.”
Khatami’s unwillingness to declare his plans is at least partly the result of uncertainty regarding the field in which he will potentially compete.
The current number of potential candidates could grow between now and the third week of May when the Guardian Council completes the vetting process and announces the names of those who are “qualified” by it to run.
In 2009, only four out 475 registrants – most of whom were not well-known enough to meet the constitutional requirement of being “among the religious and political elites” of the country – were approved by the Council, while in the open 2005 election eight out of more than 1,000 aspirants made the cut.
Khatami may be disqualified by the conservative Guardian Council for being too close to Mussavi and Karrubi and what the regime has identified as the “sedition current” in the country.
On Mar. 9, the hard-line Kayhan Daily, which is reportedly close to Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ran a harsh piece entitled “Who Said They Will Let You to Run?” The column cited Khatami’s “multiple crimes” during the “American-Israeli sedition” of the 2009 election, insisting that they disqualified him from “participation in the body-politic of the system” and called for his supporters to “forget about (his) candidacy for (the) presidency”.
The intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, went further and referred to Khatami as “shameless” and rebuked him for forgetting the harm he had done to country by questioning the results of the 2009 election and still wanting to run.
But the fact that Khatami may be disqualified has not deterred his supporters who believe that it is better to force the Guardian Council – and, ultimately, Khamenei himself who many believe would be the hidden hand behind Khatami’s disqualification – to bear the political costs of such a move.
Even if there is a threat of physical attack against Khatami, according to one political science professor, the former president should not seek Khamenei’s permission, or not enter the fray for fear of disqualification. Given the dire economic situation in the country and Iran’s difficult international predicament, “Khatami must feel a sense of duty and step forward,” he told IPS.
For such supporters the hope is that the country’s difficult predicament, as well as the former president’s continued popularity, will also influence Khamenei and ultimately persuade him to abandon any objection to Khatami’s candidacy.
Ironically, the desire for Khatami’s return, if it is indeed as widespread as his supporters believe, can also be seen as a reflection of the broader societal desire for cooperating with Khamenei to end the deepening economic and political crisis in the country.
In the words of one high-ranking state manager, who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity, “It is only with Khatami that the dangers associated with any shift of power in Iran be avoided. With anyone else, such a shift may be like an electricity blackout, resulting in event greater popular disenchantment. We hope Ayatollah Khamenei understands this and welcomes it.”