February 11th, 2009
11:53 AM ET

A familiar face in Iran

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/meast/02/08/iran.khatami/art.khatami.file.afp.gi.jpg caption="Mohammad Khatami, in a photo from October, said Sunday he is running for Iran's presidency."]

Alexandra Poolos
AC360° Editorial Producer

A familiar face is back on the Iranian political scene. Former President Mohammad Khatami, once the darling of reformists, has announced that he will run for president in June elections against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who reversed many of the freedoms Khatami had allowed during his two-term rule.

The announcement by Khatami has stirred up politics in Iran, where many see the former reformist leader as having a real chance of winning against conservative hardliner Ahmadinejad. “The Iranian nation’s historical demand is to have freedom, independence and justice, and I will work for that,” Mr. Khatami said at the Sunday press conference in Tehran when he announced his candidacy.

The race will now be polarized between two competing visions for Iran’s future: Khatami’s more open and liberal Islamic state with personal freedoms and closer ties with the West, and Ahmadinejad’s conservative rule that has seen great animosity with the United States and tighter restrictions on social and political freedoms.

Khatami is believed to be able to rally voters fed up with Ahmadinejad’s rule. Since his election in 2005, Iran has seen a steep deterioration of the economy, rising unemployment and tighter sanctions from the West. Still, Ahmadinejad’s unexpected rise to power came from the strong support he received in villages outside Tehran and his backing from Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the all-powerful Guardian Council. He can still count on the support of the country’s poor and the religious leadership.

In a televised address on Tuesday to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which led to the end of close relations between Tehran and Washington, Ahmadinejad said that Iran was ready for new dialogue with the U.S. “Our nation is ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the Guardian Council will block Khatami’s candidacy as they did dozens of other reformist parliamentary candidates in elections last year. But some say that Khatami is too prominent a figure. “He was the president for two terms, so it would be a huge embarrassment for the regime if they blocked him,” Golnaz Esfandiari, a senior correspondent at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who covers Iran, said. “That’s exactly why the reformers asked him to run. They believe he is the only person who can prevent an Ahmadinejad election.”

Still, after eight years as president from 1997-2005, Khatami knows the intense challenges of the office. Stymied by the hard-line clerics, Khatami accomplished little of his reformist agenda. He witnessed the closure of many pro-democracy publications, the jailing of activists and the elimination of reformist allies from parliament. Worse, many who had voted for him grew disillusioned with his rule, saying he did not stand up to the Guardian Council. Some analysts have said that their disillusionment, which led many to boycott the 2005 elections, contributed to Ahmadinejad’s surprise win.

But Esfandiari says that Khatami feels it is his duty to run for office again. “When his term ended he told reporters he had lots of bitter memories,” she said. “He said he had to face a crisis every nine days. He sees his decision [to run again] as a self-sacrifice. This is the view he has that he has to do this for Iran and for the Islamic establishment. Many people believe Ahmadinejad is damaging the country. The economy is in very poor shape, and there is concern that Iran is going to face even tougher sanctions.”

Even if Khatami can rally the votes to win in June, his presidency will be an uphill battle. The office of the president is a largely symbolic office in Iran, where unelected bodies and the Supreme Leader hold the real power.

But his election and the support he may receive will show whether Iranians are hungry for real change, or at least a return to how things were when he last held office. “A lot will depend on what kind of programs Khatami will have,” Esfandiari said. “Many see him as the only chance for better ties with the U.S. There is this change in tone from Washington, and many see this as a golden opportunity for Iran. And many see Khatami as the only one who could take advantage of that.”

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Global 360° • Iran
soundoff (3 Responses)
  1. rivirivi

    I foresee the news "Khatami dead in car bomb" because psychopath Ahmadinajihad is not going to stop being the Ayatollah's puppet. I suspect Ahmadinajihad is one of those orphan boys who are brought in the brainwashing Iranian School of Hate-USATAN – probably since he was 2 yrs old. Ahmadinajihad's adoptive father his puppeteer the Ayatollah has a very visible indentation in his frontal lobe, a possible sign of lack of empathy due to damage in that area, so what do you get when you mix a sociopath with a psychopath?

    February 11, 2009 at 2:30 pm |
  2. Michael C. McHugh

    I've thought for a long time that the majority of Iranians are not happy with the fascist regime that took over their country after the revolution–especially the young people. It would be better for them and us if they could somehow change it. I think such changes can only come from within a society. They take a long time, especially in nations with no democratic traditions.

    February 11, 2009 at 12:12 pm |
  3. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    It would appear that Iran is exploring putting on a new face-–will the people of Iran be brave enough to change its image-–time will tell.

    February 11, 2009 at 11:59 am |