In 2008, American voters installed a reformer as president, rejecting the policies of the outgoing administration, which was dominated by neo-conservatives who pursued ruinous economic policies at home and got caught up in debilitating entanglements abroad. Now in 2009, the same electoral pattern may be unfolding in Iran, as the country's highest profile reformer, former president Mohammad Khatami, has formally declared himself a candidate in the presidential vote later this year.
Iran's political system is far less flexible and transparent than that in the United States, meaning that despite the widespread disenchantment with the incumbent, President Mahmound Akhamdinejad, political turnover will be difficult to achieve in the Islamic Republic. But experts and political insiders say Khatami, who served two terms as chief executive from 1997-2005, would never have entered the race if he did not think he had at least a shot at winning.
"Khatami has deep reservations about running," a reformist activist told EurasiaNet several days prior to Khatami's official announcement of his candidacy on February 8. "[But] Khatami, like most people in the know, sees a miniscule chance of his ticket winning in this election."
Ahmadinejad's popularity has fallen in inverse proportion to the country's rising inflation rate. The economy is in a shambles and Tehran finds itself with few friends in the international arena, thanks to its combative stance regarding the country's nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But Ahmadinejad -- whose chief support comes from Iranian neo-conservatives affiliated with the security apparatus, in particular the Revolutionary Guards -- has plenty of supporters in many of the unelected institutions that have a large role in running Iran.
Most notably, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has expressed strong support for Ahmadinejad's policies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The enforcers of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards and Basij Militia, are also solidly behind the president, and, together, these hardliner elements control millions of votes. Ahmadinjed's policies, though disastrous from a fiscal point of view, have also played well among impoverished Iranians in rural areas. Thus, the president has several large constituencies upon which he can rely in the election.
Ahmadinejad and his allies have also used their three years in power to realign the system. They have tightened the country's political space, while concurrently rolling back social and cultural freedoms. It has reached a point now, where those wishing to challenge the existing system must clear formidable hurdles. The first such hurdle is the Guardian Council, an institution responsible for vetting all candidates for elected office that hardliners have used with increasing frequency in recent election cycles to exclude reformists from the electoral process. Indeed, even though Khatami has already served as president, his candidacy will face review in the Guardian Council, which could conceivably disqualify him.
In the presidential campaign itself, the power of incumbency will enable Ahmadinejad's administration to mobilize the country's mass media against any and all challengers.
Khatami is acutely aware of the power of hardliner-controlled media to derail his candidacy. After coming to power in an upset victory in 1997, Khatami had to contend with the radical right's attack machine, which ultimately brought reform efforts to a standstill during his second term and then helped boot him out of office in 2005 amid a landslide electoral loss to Ahmadinejad. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In the weeks leading up to his announcement, Khatami had been publicly mulling another run for the presidency. Almost as soon as the public ruminations began, Ahmadinejad's allies in the press turned on the smear machine.
In mid-January, one hardliner-dominated newspaper published pictures of Khatami shaking hands with unveiled women, a move designed to stoke disapproval among religiously conservative voters. Another paper printed allegations that Khatami's university degree was forged. In addition, a newsletter called Ebrat, which is distributed in mosques at Friday prayers, contained a cartoon in which Khatami is depicted as stooge of Uncle Sam receiving dollar bills with the caption "A New Shah Sultan Hussein" -- a reference to a early 18th century Persian monarch, whose feckless policies led to the collapse of the Safavid dynasty and the loss of traditionally Persian lands to Ottoman Turkey.
In declaring his candidacy, Khatami realized that the personal attacks will only intensify. "He knows that he will be a target of vicious attack by a determined and ruthless opponent," the reformist activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "This will go on for months. No body likes to run in this kind of climate."
Internal debate among Khatami's inner circle was heated on the issue of whether to run or not, the activist added. "Many people felt it was political suicide for Khatami to run. But those reformists supporting the idea pointed to the fact the social base will have a chance to be re-energized with this," the activist said.
Khatami's base is considered to be urbanized progressives who want to modernize the economy and open up Iran to the outside world. This urban constituency carried him to victory in 1997 and 2001 but grew disillusioned with his administration's failure to deliver on promised reforms. These progressive-minded voters grew apathetic in 2005 and have stayed away from the political process since then. In the 2008 parliamentary elections, for example, all 30 seats representing Tehran went to conservative candidates, even though some gained only a 12-percent share of the vote.
The advent of the Obama administration in Washington, which has promised to explore engagement with Tehran, combined with the sense that Ahmadinejad is vulnerable, may be able to reinvigorate Iranian progressives, provided that Khatami can run a good campaign, some experts suggest. Alireza Rejaii, a top reformist theoretician, spelled this point out in a recent interview. "The election will give us a unique opportunity that can not under any circumstances be passed over." He added that a window of opportunity is opening, in which reformists can "channel" their frustrations and potentially re-open the Iranian politics.
Reformists alone would probably be unable on their own to defeat Ahmadinejad. But the window that Rejaii and others see is mainly connected to dissatisfaction with the incumbent president among mainstream conservatives inside. Many conservative clerics, for example, are erstwhile supporters of Ahmadinejad who have grown alarmed of late over the president's penchant for placing allies with ties to the Revolutionary Guards in positions of power, while stripping the clergy of many levers of influence. Perhaps the shrewdest politician in Iran today -- Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- has capitalized on the traditionalist-conservatives' rising discontent to revive his own political fortunes. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A tactical alliance of reformists and mainstream conservatives could be sufficient to deny Ahmadinejad another term in office. The conservative element would be crucial in blunting efforts to permit gerrymandering of the process by unelected institutions, such as the Guardian Council.
Such an electoral alliance could possible pave the way for another presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mosavi, who served as prime minister from 1981-1989. For the better part of the last two decades, Mosavi, whose credentials are appealing to both reformists and mainstream conservatives, has stayed far away from the political stage. But of late, Mosavi supporters have floated the idea that he may come out of political retirement to challenge Ahmadinejad. If that were to happen, Khatami would most likely withdraw from the race in order to ensure unity among reformists and traditionalists behind a single candidate, experts say.