Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reason to smile: His
opponents in this June’s presidential election appear to be in some
disarray. Former President Mohammed Khatami withdrew from the race
late Monday, declaring his support for former prime minister Mir-
Hossein Moussavi. The news reflects the confusion in the anti-
Ahmadinejad camp that began last week when Moussavi threw his hat in
the ring. The reluctant Khatami had previously agreed to stand only after
exhaustive negotiations with Moussavi had failed to convince the former Prime Minister to run against Ahmadinejad for President.
When Moussavi last week declared his own intention to run, some
longtime reformist commentators expressed skepticism about his intentions. But Khatami had long made clear that he would only run as the consensus candidate of the anti-Ahmadinejad forces, and even then, reluctantly. He appears to have taken Moussavi’s entry into the race as a queue to bow out, and declare his support for the former Prime Minister.
In a statement announcing his withdrawal, Khatami hailed Mossavi as “faithful to the ideals of the revolution and the nation” saying he had “defended and will defend fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as people’s right to determine their own destinies, the nation’s interests, and the country’s international honor.”
Conservative websites feasted on the news of Khatami’s withdrawal.
The pro-Ahmadinejad site Raja News presented the picture of a broken
Khatami with divisions in his own ranks. The site claims that in
one session with supporters on Sunday, Khatami was asked why he was
reluctant to persevere, and answered, “One of my apprehensions is that
those around me aren’t sincere. Three, four of the people who
encouraged me to run also went after Moussavi and invited him to run.”
Khatami supporters presented the decision as based on a desire to
avoid splitting the anti-Ahmadinejad vote. “Mr. Khatami had said from
the start that he would not run as a candidate if Mr. Moussavi decided
to run,” said one aide sitting in on the final negotiations about
Khatami’s withdrawal, who requested anonymity. “Now he is only acting
on his words. He does not want there to be a split among reformists.
With divisions among reformists, there is no chance for us to win.”
Still, Khatami’s supporters had tried desperately to persuade their man to
stay in the race rather than concede to Moussavi, whose supporters are
more centrist and who has fewer opponents among the fundamentalists
that dominate Iran’s political system; while all of the newspapers
associated with Khatami’s original reform movement have been closed
down, for example, Moussavi was recently given permission to start a
paper of his own.
Monday’s meeting of Khatami supporters, said one source, was focused
on the priority of finding the most effective strategy for defeating Ahmadinejad by
uniting around a single candidate.
But the picture is further complicated by a third reformist candidate,
former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who may not agree to step
aside. In the 2005 election, similar attempts to settle on a single
candidate to run against Ahmadinejad faltered, in part because
Karroubi insisted on staying in that race.
Ahmadinejad’s path to re-election could be made more difficult,
however, if he’s challenged by some of the more pragmatic conservative
elements who’ve been alarmed by the incumbent’s handling of the
economy and foreign policy. For now, Ahmadinejad is the sole conservative candidate, but Tehran mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf has signaled his intention to run, and there has also been talk of a presidential bid by former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who carries the backing of such power-houses in the
pragmatic centrist ranks as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
chairman of the clerical body that elects the Supreme Leader.
Moussavi’s appeal lies in the fact that he had been a popular prime
minister during the Iran-Iraq war, and is credited with having done a
good job managing the country through some of its most trying economic
times. During his tenure, the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei had been president, and when the two men disagreed, Moussavi
is said to have often won the support of then Supreme Leader Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic.
Arriving to deliver his first speech as a presidential candidate on
Saturday in the South of Tehran, Moussavi was greeted with chants of,
“Blessings to Prophet Mohammad, Khomeini’s companion has come.”
The conservatives certainly see Moussavi as a more formidable enemy
than Khatami. The political editor of the conservative daily
Resalat, Amir Mohebbian, said in an interview with Ghalam
website, “If Moussavi enters as the solitary candidate of the
reformists, he has high chances of winning in the elections, and if
people like Khatami support him as well, he will have the support of
young voters, too.” In the same interview, Mohebbian adds that, “What
is clear is that the fundamentalists prefer him over other reformist
candidates,” and that Moussavi had more opponents among what he called
“extremists” in the reform movement.
After Moussavi’s term ended, the post of Prime Minister was abolished.
Moussavi exited politics, and went into what has in the Iranian media
been referred to as “20 years of silence.” In those years,
Moussavi committed himself mostly to cultural affairs, including his
artistry as a painter. Now, in order to be a serious contender,
Moussavi will need to attract young voters, many of whom are too young
to remember his premiership. In an editorial on Rooz Online, 32-year-old Masih Alinejad asks where the former Premier was during all “those
years in which the young generation suffered heavy wounds.”
The turmoil over Khatami and Moussavi reflects the challenge facing
reformists in finding a single candidate capable of winning support
not only from traditional reformist voters, but also from less
engaged, moderately conservative voters and, at the same time,
ensure that such a candidate offers enough promise of change to
prevent the young voters Khatami attracts from staying away from the
polls. It’s a real dilemma, and one that Ahmadinejad’s backers are
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