Khatami Pulls Out of Presidential Race

During his two terms as president from 1997 to 2005, Mohammad Khatami, a Shiite cleric, sought detente with Western nations.
During his two terms as president from 1997 to 2005, Mohammad Khatami, a Shiite cleric, sought detente with Western nations. (By Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)
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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

TEHRAN, March 17 -- President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main challenger in Iran's June presidential election pulled out of the race Tuesday and threw his support to a less prominent candidate.

Mohammad Khatami, a Shiite Muslim cleric and former president who is popular among youths and women, issued a statement in which he pledged to support former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, who announced his candidacy a week ago.

"I believe that Mr. Mousavi has the necessary competence to change the current situation," Khatami said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. "Despite differences in our opinions and actions, the important thing is that Mousavi seriously defends and will defend the fundamental rights and freedoms of people and the country's international reputation."

Both Khatami and Mousavi, a former architect, have repeatedly criticized Ahmadinejad's foreign, domestic and economic policies. Joining their criticism has been the other main candidate opposing the president, Mehdi Karrubi, a former head of parliament.

Throughout his two presidential terms from 1997 to 2005, Khatami sought detente with the West. Iran agreed to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for incentives from Western countries, although the parties never agreed on what those incentives should be.

When Ahmadinejad became president in 2005, Iran restarted its enrichment program, a move that was backed by Iran's top clerical leaders.

According to critics and analysts, Khatami had been half-hearted about his candidacy and was looking to leave the race.

"After eight years of experience as president, Khatami believes that the capacity of the system to reform itself is low," Ahmad Zeidabadi, an analyst critical of Iran's political system, said in an interview. "He believed that the sensitivity of higher leaders about him wouldn't allow him to improve the country."

"The opponents are treading on morality," Khatami said Sunday, according to Fars News Agency. His attempts to campaign have repeatedly been obstructed in recent weeks, sometimes openly by government officials, who have ripped up campaign posters showing the cleric. In other instances, governors, who are appointed by the Interior Ministry, have not allowed election rallies to be held in certain locations.

"After his candidacy, he realized that the pressures and problems ahead would be more than he had expected," said Mehrdad Serjooie, a political analyst and former journalist.

Others said Khatami had planned to withdraw in favor of Mousavi from the beginning.

"He had two options," said Mohammad Atrianfar, an official during Khatami's administration. Khatami could have pursued the presidency himself but faced "heavy political attacks without achieving real changes," or he could pull out and "back Mousavi, who might implement less reforms but has more chance of being elected," Atrianfar said.

Khatami's withdrawal from the race appears likely to strengthen Ahmadinejad's position, analysts and supporters of the former president said. On the other hand, they said, it could also reduce the splitting of votes among candidates who oppose Ahmadinejad.

Another factor is that "Mousavi will not be a reformist candidate," meaning that "former supporters of Ahmadinejad can also vote for him," said Amir Mohebbian, a political strategist for a faction that once supported Ahmadinejad. Mousavi "will have Khatami bringing the youths to vote for him," he said. However, "his similar terminology with Ahmadinejad on justice and helping the poor will mean that he has a big chance," Mohebbian added. "All in all, this is a logical decision by Khatami."

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