A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 9, 2009

Khatami's Turban in the Ring Again

Former Iranian President Mohammad 'Ali Khatami has announced that he will run in this spring's Iranian Presidential elections. While Iranian reformers had been urging him to do so, Khatami's sometimes Hamlet-like approach to politics had left it uncertain whether he would run. Now he will.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad is arguably vulnerable. The economy is in disastrous shape, and Ahmadinejad has his enemies, including former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he defeated for the job but who still has a great deal of clout, and Parliament Speaker 'Ali Larijani, formerly Ahmadinejad's national security chief. While Ahmadinejad's confrontational style towards the West has its supporters, it has also brought sanctions and a greater isolation of the country than at any time since the hostage crisis 30 years ago.

For Americans alarmed by Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, the prospect of Khatami returning to office is naturally attractive: the detente between the two countries during his two terms in office, though it led to few concrete results, was preferable to the nuclear saber-rattling and anti-Israeli rhetoric Ahmadinejad has come to be known for.

Juan Cole goes so far as to ask "Can Khatami Be Iran's Obama?" The short answer, I'm afraid, is no, if only because the Iranian Presidency is much weaker than the American Presidency, as Khatami himself frequently complained in public during and after his tenure. And there are enormous hurdles. Though Khatami was initially boosted to power by support of young people and college students, many blame him for allowing crackdowns on student protests during his term. Former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, another reformer, is running, and many expect Tehran Mayor Mohammad 'Ali Qalibaf to announce as well. The anti-Ahmadinejad vote may well be split, and the incumbent still has a strong base of support in the Guards Corps and the Basij militia, who were his initial political base.

As Cole notes, there are signs that the hardliners are going to try to imply that Khatami is pro-American, which exaggerates the reality, but it is something of which Ahmadinejad will never be accused.

The man with the most important vote of all, Leader Ayatollah 'Ali Khamenei, has supported Ahmadinejad but also had good relations with Khatami.

Iranian Presidential elections are not exercises in Jeffersonian democracy, especially since the Council of Guardians can disqualify candidates virtually on a whim. But within their limitations they are competitive and can produce surprises: both Khatami in his first term run and Ahmadinejad himself were dark horses who beat better-known establishment figures.

I have a vague sense, which I can't really document or feel terribly confident about, that Ahmadinejad is vulnerable. I specifically declined to run articles on Iranian politics in the spring (April) issue of The Middle East Journal because of the real chance that they would be overtaken by events in the May elections. Perhaps it's just wishful thinking. Khatami joining the race does, at least, suggest it will be worth watching, and will tell us whether the reform movement is a spent force or still has some fight left in it.

No comments: