Iran's Former President Contemplates Run for Office

Former president Mohammad Khatami greets supporters at a gathering last month. He is seen as less socially conservative than the current president.
Former president Mohammad Khatami greets supporters at a gathering last month. He is seen as less socially conservative than the current president. (By Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)
By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

TEHRAN, Dec. 15 -- Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, an opponent of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's policies, said Monday that he is still pondering a bid for the country's highest political office directly elected by the people.

During a speech before hundreds of Tehran University students, who chanted slogans in support of his potential candidacy, Khatami said, "I'm not saying I won't run, I'm just saying that I'm still thinking it over."

"Khatami forever, future president," the students, some of whom demonstrated last week against Ahmadinejad, shouted several times, according to the Iranian Students News Agency.

The former president, who during two terms spanning 1997 to 2005 clashed with several of the country's powerful unelected political institutions, told the students that Iran's "problems" couldn't be solved in one day.

"People's expectations are very high. They want everything to be solved in one night," he told the students, who broke into the auditorium hours before the speech to prevent government supporters from taking their seats, eyewitnesses said. Foreign journalists were banned from entering university grounds.

Ahmadinejad hasn't registered yet as a candidate, but he is expected to run for a second term. If Khatami becomes a candidate, Ahmadinejad, whose management of Iran's oil-dependent economy has come under sometimes harsh criticism, would face a serious competitor.

Ahmadinejad and Khatami are on opposite sides of the Iranian political spectrum -- with the president representing a socially conservative, economically populist wing and the former president favoring more personal freedoms and a stronger civil society within the Islamic republic.

"If Khatami would run, it would mean that the elections will be between only two main candidates," said Iraj Jamshidi, a journalist with the newspaper Donya Eghtesad, which is critical of Ahmadinejad's policies.

Khatami, a Shiite Muslim cleric, was elected twice by large majorities of the popular vote. In addition to promising more civil liberties and political freedoms, he pledged to end Iran's isolation in world affairs. By the end of his administration, many of his supporters were disappointed with his inability to fulfill those pledges. Some of his political appointees were suspected of corruption.

During his campaign, Ahmadinejad promised to spend Iran's oil income on programs directly helping the poor. But inflation and unemployment have risen sharply, and in many urban areas, his popularity seems to have dropped.

"Those promises were made for getting votes," said Amir Mohebbian, an analyst who once supported Ahmadinejad's political faction. "They both promised gigantic changes which were not doable."

Only Mehdi Karroubi, a centrist cleric who finished third in the 2005 presidential election, has officially announced his candidacy.

The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guard commander who presents himself as a technocrat, is contemplating a run. So is Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Ahmadinejad's former interior minister.

During his years as president, Khatami battled several powerful state institutions, including the 12-member Guardian Council, which has the right to disqualify candidates running for office and veto laws proposed by the elected government and parliament. Even presidential candidates must be vetted by the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In 2004, the council blocked almost all of Khatami's parliamentary supporters from participating in elections. Their seats were won by the faction affiliated with Ahmadinejad.

"In my time, it was said by state television that there is poverty, corruption, high prices and unemployment, but today -- thank God -- everything is great," Khatami told the students in apparent sarcasm.

According to Iran's central bank, inflation is at historic highs, reaching nearly 30 percent on a month-to-month basis.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company