11 Feb 2009 03:37
[Tehran Bureau ] After much speculation, Mohammad Khatami, the former Iranian president, announced on Sunday, February 8, that he would run in Iran's presidential election to be held on June 12. The Iranian vote comes at a crucial juncture. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's abrasive rhetoric has put Iran on a head-on collision course with Israel and the West for the past three and half years. With their vote, the Iranian people will send a signal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the reigns of power in Iran, in which direction they would like him to steer the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei may be vehemently anti-Western, but he is intelligent and pragmatic. With a black president (whose middle name, "Hussein," invokes the much-revered, martyred Shia Imam) in the White House, the hard-line camp is intrigued, more so than they have ever been in the past 30 years. Despite the fiery rhetoric from some conservative quarters, even the hardest core hard-liners in Iran are not averse to testing the waters. Just on Tuesday, in a televised address, Ahmadinejad himself told a rally marking the 30-year anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that Tehran was ready for "talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere."
So do Iranians really want a reconciliation with the West, or are they too hungry to care?
Ahmadinejad's economic platform has consisted of handouts to the poor and petro-fueled subsidies to his favorite sectors. Though he is an arch-villain in the West, he has been popular with the silent majority of working class and provincial Iranians who see something of themselves in his simple ways. With the crash in the price of oil however, Ahmadinejad is already facing problems keeping those programs afloat. And disfranchised Iranians are bound to remember better economic times under Khatami.
Ahmadinejad's support base also includes the much-feared security apparatus. On the other hand, even Ahmadinejad had to imply a laxer dress code for women the last time he was on the presidential campaign trail. For the many young women who were terrorized under Ahmadinejad's watch for wearing their headscarves too loosely, and their manteux too tightly, this is payback time. They could turn to Khatami -- who himself likes to appear well-groomed and to wear nice shoes -- who appreciates the benefits of good appearance.
Over the past decade or so, Iran's politics have somewhat mirrored whatgoes on in Washington. In response to smart and affable Bill Clinton, the Iranian people elected Khatami, a soft-spoken cleric who is also a world-class political philosopher. For the combative George W. Bush, Iranians introduced the world to hard-liner Ahmadinejad.
Now, in answer to Barack Hussein Obama, they need a charismatic international star. Figurehead or not, Khatami is the only who has that magic. Even King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia -- not the greatest fan of Iran's leaders -- has adopted the "Dialogue Among Civilization" mantra made famous by Mohammad Khatami, and reflective of his scholarly expertise in political philosophy.
Still, Mr. Khatami has some hurdles to overcome.
Mohammad Khatami rose to prominence in 1997, in a rock-star presidency -- supported by Iran's youth and televised on CNN -- and put Iran abruptly on a different, more conciliatory path -- for a while anyway.
Millions of Iranians turned out to vote for him and he won two terms in office with unprecedented margins. Despite his popular mandate, by his second year in office he had allowed himself to be co-opted by the conservative establishment. In 1999, when many of his supporters took to the streets to protest the shutting down of the reformist newspaper Salaam, and the many other abuses that preceded it, Khatami, a former publisher, did not stand up for them -- even when they were arrested, jailed and Allah knows what. Many of them have not forgotten that. If they are to support Khatami again, he needs to demonstrate he is a braver and stronger man. And he must show the Iranian people, and his former support base, that he has a workable plan for the country this time.
Despite Khatami's failures in his two terms, those who want change in Iran must realize that he is still the most likely reformist candidate to prevail upon the Guardian Council, a powerful organization charged with vetting candidates for office, among other constitutional powers.
Since Khatami's surprise victory more than a decade ago, the hard-liners have resorted to all sorts of methods -- ranging from the subtle to the steel-fisted -- to disqualify reform-minded candidates from running in all manner of elections, paving the way for them to consolidate their hold on power. For that very reason, it is difficult to believe Khatami would agree to run if he did not have the tacit approval of the Supreme Leader -- who may exercise his power not to confirm a president, even after the election. The hard-liners don't trust the reformists, but if it is the only way forward, they will go along with it.
So does Khatami have a chance? Absolutely. But he needs to be more convincing this time. There is too much at stake.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau - distributed by Agence Global