Don’t call it a comeback

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Tehran Bureau | correspondent

The man on the cover is indeed not Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president. It’s King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This was the cover of last November’s Diplomat magazine, published by the Saudi foreign ministry – not exactly the greatest admirers of Iran’s leaders. All the more amusing that they should appear to covet Khatami’s title. Maybe he should run to reclaim it.

The Iranian presidential election is coming up in June. As widely reported, there is a chance Mr. Khatami will announce his candidacy, if his allies get their way. Hooman Majd, the author of the new book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, is a great admirer. During a talk he gave at the New America Foundation, in Washington D.C., a former UN Ambassador questioned his support for him. “I really can’t think of anything that he accomplished when he was president,” he told Mr. Majd.

That may have been the view from here, Mr. Majd replied, but for Iranians, he made a difference. “He opened up Iran and he opened up Iranian society. This idea that Iranians didn’t have to be fearful of the government, that they could have certain social liberties, I think that took hold in his presidency because he was a liberal and he set the tone,” he said.

He conceded that Mr. Khatami had fallen out of favor as his second term came to a close, for the reason stated: “‘What has he done? We thought we were going to be able to have discos and bars and all kinds of stuff happening and it didn’t happen. He was supposed to be able to stand up to the conservatives, he was supposed to be able to stand up to the Supreme Leader, stand up to human rights abuses that were going on under his regime.’

“His attitude, as he explained it to me was that it’s better to fight the system from within than to resign. And he did offer to resign a couple of times. Even though he was unpopular toward the end of his term, I find it interesting that now, three and a half years after his presidency, this time whenever I mention his name in a casual political conversation, even in a taxi cab or a store or shop, people say khoda biamorzash, which means God bless him. We should have kind of appreciated that we had a better life under him.’

“For some people anyway [this is the view]. I’m not suggesting he has overwhelming support of the people. There is a sense at least for people living in Iran that he did do more for Iran—for the standard of living. The economy wasn’t as bad under him, that’s for sure. There weren’t lines at the gas station, electricity wasn’t going off two hours a day. Rightly or wrongly, they attribute that to the current administration.”

There was even a rumor that former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had endorsed Mr. Khatami. “It’s just that, a rumor,” a reporter in Tehran wrote back. “They generally get on well. But Hashemi would never directly align himself with anyone or any position!”

To gauge the mood there a bit more, I asked other friends in Tehran who follow politics closely. Do they think Mr. Khatami will run? Do they support him?

“Well, Khatami seems to be playing with the public the way Rafsanjani did last time,” said one friend I will call Ali. “I am sure he wouldn’t have a better fate if he decides to run. This is against what polls suggest now, but that is just my gut feeling. You may find it strange, but I don’t support him.”

I do find it strange. Ali was a student in Tehran when Mr. Khatami was president, and he was one of his staunchest supporters. He often spoke wistfully of life in Iran during the Khatami presidency. One of my favorite stories was of newspaper kiosks pulsing with new life. Ali went to the newsstand every afternoon and picked papers as if wildflowers from a field. He piled a stack of them into his arms and hurried home to pore over every line. When we had discussions about the reformists back then—I thought they were useless—he would tell me as politely as he could that I was wrong, that I held the warped point of view of an Iranian expat who had grown up in California. I agree with that assessment today.

To my surprise, another friend, Babak, said he doesn’t support Mr. Khatami either. “I don’t like him,” he said. “But I don’t dislike him either. He doesn’t have the temperament for the job, as he has clearly demonstrated.”

Bita, who is in the reformist camp, said she did support him. “Under one condition,” she qualified. “He must not be the Khatami he was. He must be stronger, and braver.”

Is Khatami still the old Khatami? If not, what was he waiting for? A green light from the Supreme Leader? Would he give one?

I don’t expect a clear answer.

“Officially speaking, the Supreme Leader may exercise his power not to confirm a president, even after the election,” a Principlist explained to me. “Of course I don’t see this happening. If Mr. Khamenei tells someone not to run, or if someone thinks the Leader doesn’t want him to run, he won’t. But that won’t happen either. The Leader won’t keep anyone from running, just as he didn’t keep Mr. Khatami from doing so in the past. He won’t this time either. The Leader prefers the process to take its legal and natural course. Using his art and diplomatic skills, he can always manage and guide the president.”

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