The black-turbaned cleric – who won landslide victories in 1997 and 2001 on the promise of restoring the rule of law, loosening social restrictions, and ending Iran’s isolation – will now be aiming to restore his political reputation while challenging Iran’s arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The fight promises to be a clash of Iran’s political titans, between men representing opposite sides of Iran’s political and social chasm.
As Iran this week marks the 30th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution, it is locked in a nuclear stand-off with the West, under United Nations sanctions, and witnessing a severe economic downturn. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure has also seen greater restrictions on human rights activists and contact with foreigners – both trends opposed by Mr. Khatami’s hallmark “dialogue of civilizations.”
Khatami was the first to reach out to the “great American people” in late 1997, hoping to break decades of deadlock with the US. The effort ultimately failed, though Iran’s next president will almost certainly play a key role in the next chapter of US-Iran relations – or lack thereof – as President Barack Obama seeks to engage Iran.
“I never had doubt. Is it possible to remain indifferent toward the revolution’s fate and shy away from running in the elections?” Khatami asked. “I consider this a right to run in this stage. This candidacy does not deprive others and the path is open. What should be stressed is that the elections must be held freely.”
Despite his past popularity, victory in the June 12 poll is far from assured. Reformists are likely to rejoice at Khatami’s presence in the race. But one legacy of his eight years as president – and the hard-line attacks that wrecked his agenda – has been such widespread dissatisfaction that many young Iranians no longer play an active role in politics.
And while Ahmadinejad will not be the only hard-line candidate, he has treated the past 3 ½ years as if he were on a perpetual reelection campaign. The populist leader has visited every province in the country, starting hundreds of projects and doling out cash as he presses the flesh and discusses local issues.
Ahmadinejad and his allies have received explicit support from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, who has shifted Iran’s political space decidedly to the right in recent years.
More than an hour after Khatami’s announcement, Iran’s state-run television channels had yet to mention it; 30 minutes further on, Channel 2 gave it a few seconds at the end of its newscast.
Reformists say that only Khatami has the name recognition and gravitas to turn Iranian politics away from the hard right. But conservative players – two of whom told me this week that an Ahmadinejad reelection is “certain” – argue that Khatami’s bid will only help them, by frightening conservative factions into unaccustomed unity.