Tehran, Iran The battered reformist movement was energized with hopes of a political comeback Monday after its most powerful advocate, Mohammad Khatami, entered the race for president, a matchup one liberal Web site predicted would be “an Armageddon between reformists and hard-liners.”
Khatami, who was president from 1997 to 2005 and previously expressed reluctance to run again, is seen by many reformists as their white knight, the only candidate with a real chance of beating hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Supporters see the cleric, whose calls for better ties with the West provide a stark contrast to Ahmadinejad’s tough rhetoric, as warming U.S.-Iranian ties, even opening a dialogue with Barack Obama.
But Khatami, who announced his candidacy Sunday, faces a tough campaign. Reformists are divided, and the ruling religious establishment backs the current president.
Ahmadinejad is believed to be vulnerable in the June elections because of public anger over issues including fuel shortages, inflation and his confrontational stances toward the West. But few saw any candidate with the stature to defeat him.
A matchup between him and Khatami, however, transforms the race into a real competition. One reformist Web site, Asr-e Iran, said Khatami’s entrance could “polarize” the campaign and turn it into “an Armageddon between reformists and hard-liners.”
Boost for reformers?
Supporters believe the charismatic Khatami can turn around the disillusionment that has dragged down the movement for years. In recent years, many pro-reform voters have stayed away from the polls because of hard-liners’ powers to bar their candidates from running.
In their heyday in the late 1990s, reformists swept to power, seizing the presidency and parliament. They promised better relations with the West and the easing of the Islamic republic’s tight social and political restrictions, and the young and women turned out in droves to hand them electoral landslides.
But even before Khatami’s two terms ended, the movement was largely crushed by ruling hard-line clerics, who stand above elected posts like the presidency and parliament. Reformists were able to loosen some strictures on women’s dress, but hard-liners thwarted deeper political change.
Clerical bodies controlled by hard-liners have the power under Iranian law to throw out laws passed by parliament and bar election candidates seen as not suitable for the country’s Islamic revolution.
Those powers later cost reformists control of parliament after many of their lawmakers were barred from running for re-election. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, when term limits removed Khatami from the race. The law allows Khatami to run again, and he is considered too prominent for clerical bodies to bar his candidature.
“Khatami is a famous figure. All the people know him, and they know about the results of Ahmadinejad’s administration,” said one of Khatami’s close allies, Mostafa Tajzadeh, suggesting reasons the former president will win.
Some supporters see Khatami as more likely to respond to the new American president’s attempts to repair the bitter U.S.-Iran rivalry. Obama has said he wants to open a dialogue with Iran over its controversial nuclear program and other disputes.
“These two are able to make better relations. Both of them are men of dialogue,” said Shahnaz Mahboubi, a 32-year-old nurse in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad’s press adviser confirmed last week that the hard-line president will seek re-election, although Ahmadinejad has not made a formal announcement.
He has faced criticism even from many conservatives over his handling of the economy and his harsh anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. rhetoric, which even some former allies say have worsened Iran’s isolation. And he may face a challenge from within the conservative movement, possibly by powerful politician Ali Larijani.
But Ahmadinejad has support from hard-liners and, most important, from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate political authority. Khamenei has praised the president for standing up to the West and restoring “Islamic values” in Iran, and urged him to run for re-election.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad has populist appeal. His government has handed out millions in direct support to the poor, despite criticism that the spending has undermined the economy.
Khatami has a patrician style in his clean, well-pressed clerical robes and a warm, smiling demeanor, but some see him as part of a distant elite. Ahmadinejad has a more down to earth, man-of-the-people look. Often wearing informal windbreakers, Ahmadinejad makes frequent tours of the provinces to keep in touch with the public.