By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
TEHRAN, Feb. 3 -- Former president Mohammad Khatami, who for two terms led failed attempts to give Iranians more legal freedoms and end Iran's international isolation, has decided to run in upcoming elections, aides, political allies and family members said Tuesday.
The move will pit Khatami against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an electoral battle whose outcome could alter the country's domestic and foreign agendas.
"He has agreed to become a candidate," Mohammad Reza Khatami, the former president's younger brother, told The Washington Post. "He sees the difficulties ahead, but the pressure from several groups for him to run was too big for him to decline."
Mohammad Atrianfar, an official during Khatami's 1997-2005 tenure, said Tuesday that Khatami would announce his candidacy "in the coming week."
While President Obama has promised "direct, tough diplomacy" with Iran, several analysts have suggested the administration wait until after the elections, set for June 12.
"This will be a full-fledged confrontation between totalitarians and reformists," Atrianfar said of the political strains represented by Ahmadinejad and Khatami. He said the matchup would lead to the "most interesting and sensitive elections of the past three decades."
Khatami, a mid-level cleric, was the surprise winner of the 1997 elections. After a grass-roots campaign that took him by bus through the country, he was swept into office largely on the strength of votes from young people and women.
His victory widened a rift between the judiciary, the country's Revolutionary Guard Corps and the appointed clerical councils on the one hand and parliament and the government on the other.
The factions were divided on the question of whether to alter the Islamic system or stick with the status quo. As the debate played out, political newspapers were founded and closed, students demonstrated, and dozens of activists, politicians and journalists were arrested. The polarization ended when Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 sealed a gradual political takeover by groups opposing change.
Ahmadinejad's supporters have intensified their political attacks on Khatami, who currently heads the Tehran-based International Institute for Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations and is often invited to give speeches abroad. On Sunday, lawmaker and Ahmadinejad ally Hamid Rasaee gave a speech in which he called Khatami a hypocrite, almost triggering a fistfight.
"They are very, very worried, because now that Khatami is running, their chances of winning the election have diminished," Mostafa Hadji, minister of education under Khatami, said of Ahmadinejad's supporters.
The Iranian news media have speculated for months on the likelihood of a Khatami candidacy. According to his aides, Khatami had been hoping that Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister he holds in high regard, would represent his faction. They suggested that he could still withdraw from the race if Mousavi changed his mind.
While there are no independent opinion polls in Iran, Ahmadinejad can probably count on support in rural areas, which he and his cabinet visited regularly and where he initiated job-creation projects.
Many of Iran's 44 million eligible voters also appear to identify more with Ahmadinejad, with his down-to-earth rhetoric and modest dress, than with Khatami and his string of foreign honorary doctorates.
"It is too soon too predict the outcome," said Amir Mohebbian, a political strategist. But he added: "If Khatami wins, we could see profound changes in Iran's foreign and domestic policies. If Ahmadinejad gets the most votes, things will stay the same."