And then there were two

Khatami’s withdrawal from the election campaign is bad news for Ahmadinejad.

Middle East

Tehran Bureau | election coverage

The withdrawal of Mohammad Khatami from Iran’s presidential election has disappointed those relishing a Manichean struggle between the forces of light and darkness.

On both sides of the political spectrum, there is frantic readjustment going on. Supporters of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suddenly need a new strategy, one that does not rely on attacking Khatami as a Trojan horse who would willingly or unwillingly undermine the Islamic Republic.

The president’s backers were delighted back in February when Khatami announced his candidacy. Memories of student unrest during Khatami’s presidency of 1997-2005 would, they thought, help rally principlists behind Ahmadinejad, while Khatami’s personal weakness would see him wilt in the heat of political battle.

Now, pressure for unity in the fundamentalist camp has eased. This increases the chances that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s mayor, will run rather than bide his time for a challenge in 2013. It certainly raises the price Ghalibaf can ask for allowing Ahmadinejad a clear run.

On the other side of the spectrum, radical reformists are just as wrong-footed by Khatami’s withdrawal, with some arguing that Mir Hossein Mousavi, whom Khatami has backed, is not really a reformist at all.

Radical student activists in Tehran hoped a Khatami campaign would give them a focus to demand greater social freedom; and they do not feel any enthusiasm for Mousavi, whom many do not remember as prime minister in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

But is Mousavi less likely than Khatami to win? Many conservatives have long regarded Mousavi as the more dangerous opponent.

For them, Khatami’s day had passed. As a cleric in a black turban marking descent from the Prophet Mohammad, he was an inspired reformist choice to run for president in 1997. Charming, well-dressed and erudite, he passed Guardian Council vetting and beat his right-wing rival by 13 million votes.

But conservatives later argued Khatami was a safety valve, with his appeal to the young protecting the Islamic Republic in the face of student-led unrest. “Mr Khatami came to cool down their exuberance — to curb their demands by partly meeting them,” said Reza Tarraqi, a leading member of Jamiate Moutalefeye Eslami (the Islamic Coalition Association) in 2004. “He articulated their wishes with ambiguous slogans like freedom, reform, civil society.”

Such slogans also appealed to western observers, and it should be no surprise that many now argue Khatami’s withdrawal from the presidential elections is a bonus for Ahmadinejad.

This is clearly not Khatami’s own view. As Mohammad Atrianfar, former editor of the reformist Shargh newspaper and previously an advocate of Khatami’s candidacy, put it, the cleric from Yazd faced two options: he could run for the presidency and face “heavy political attacks without achieving real changes” or he could back Mousavi “who might implement less reforms but has more chance of being elected.”

Away from the “chattering classes” of Tehran and the more radical university campuses, Mousavi’s egalitarian outlook is more likely to appeal to voters than Khatami’s appeals for a “dialogue among civilisations.” As Amir Mohebian, the political editor of Resalat, pointed out some weeks ago, Mousavi is well positioned to challenge president Ahmadinejad’s whole agenda of social justice.

Although Mousavi has been out of the public limelight since the 1980’s, the strict rules giving access to state television during elections will help him get his message across. It should not be forgotten that both Ahmadinejad and Khatami in 2005 and 2007 respectively were relative unknowns when the campaign began.

Even with Khatami out of the race, Mousavi will not carry the reformist banner alone. His meeting on Sunday with Medhi Karrubi has not brought the latter anywhere nearer withdrawal. Karrubi is as thick skinned as former parliamentary speakers tend to be, but he is still hurt by his treatment by fellow reformists at the time of the last election.

In 2005 Moharekat (Participation front), the main reformist party, scoffed at Karrubi’s chances. Its leading members ridiculed as a gimmick his main policy of giving 50,000 tomans ($55) a month to every adult from oil revenue.

Yet Karrubi recognised that the election would turn on everyday economic matters. He out-polled Mosharekat’s candidate Mostafa Moein, who highlighted issues of social freedom and rights for Iran’s ethnic minorities.

Having come third in the poll, behind only Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Karrubi was encouraged to establish a new political party, Etemad-e Melli (the National Trust), as an alternative to Mosharekat.

Now, at 71, he is unlikely to easily give up what would presumably be his last crack at the presidency, and he showed in 2005 he could be a wily campaigner.

For Mousavi to beat Ahmadinejad, he must first beat Karrubi.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

One Response to “And then there were two”

  1. Mos and Nikou Says:

    Hi there,

    This is a great blog of yours, I’m also an Iranian abroad and our website address is Please feel free to visit and let me know what you think for a link exchange.


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