Iranians Mixed on Khatami Candidacy

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Article Summary
Susan Modaress reports from Tehran on reactions to a possible run by former President Mohammad Khatami in the June presidential elections.

With Iranian presidential elections less than three months away, eyes have turned to former presidents to succeed incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

Ali Motahari, a member of parliament, recently called on former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to run in the upcoming presidential elections. Khatami was succeeded by Ahmadinejed in 2005. 

Motahari's comments have been echoed among Iranians who remember Khatami as the president who brought somewhat of an intellectual and cultural renaissance during his eight years of presidency, while practicing a moderate approach when dealing with the West. 

"We were very proud of Khatami when he would travel the world to represent our nation," says Sassan, a 32-year-old carpenter. "If Khatami runs, he has my vote." 

Khatami was also a staunch supporter of foreign trade and investment, a position many believe is needed to bypass the crippling US-imposed sanctions against Iran. 

"I remember Khatami as the president who paved the way for more integration," says Sassan. 

President Ahmadinejad remains popular among the rural and urban working poor, who view him as a the Everyman's president. Any candidate to step forward in hope of  becoming the country's highest elected official (by direct popular vote) will have to appeal to this large segment of the Iranian population. 

"If Khatami steps forward, he will have to convince the entire nation that he's everyone's president," says Davood, a taxi driver. 

Whether Khatami will announce his candidacy is anyone's guess. Campaigning usually officially starts about a month before the elections, as each candidate must be vetted by the Guardian Council, a 12-member body of six clerics and six lawyers. 

There is also talk of the possible return of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is current chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council. Rafsanjani was succeeded by Khatami in 1997. 

While In December 2012 new legislation sought to set a minimum age of 40 and a maximum of 75 for candidates, it wasn't passed in parliament. So the 79-year-old former president is qualified, should he seek office again.  

Rafsanjani, also a supporter of a domestic free market and privatization, is viewed as the figure who would help the economy out of gridlock.  

"He knows the economy inside out and has close ties with our leader; those are the two most important factors for me," says Fatemeh, a 24-year-old from Tehran. "I'd prefer to see less political rivalry from whoever steps into office, and I think Rafsanjani could be that person." 

Both men technically belong to the reformist party. Its main leaders, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi — who ran against Ahmadinejad in 2009 — have been under house arrest for over two years, with no plans for their release in the near future.

Many Iranians believe the reform era was between 1997 to 2005, during Khatami's two terms as president, with a short yet failed attempt for revival during the presidential elections of 2009. Today, not only does the party lack a strong leader with a consistent ideology and message for its supporters, it has often been viewed as too naive and inflexible to work within the parameters of the establishment. The fact that some in the party have called for a ban to participate in the elections until Mousavi and Karoubi are released is a prime example.

"At this point, the reformist party lacks a sense of unity in how to move forward, notably in the elections," says Baqer, a doctoral student who voted for Mousavi in 2009. "Some reformists are certain the party will be sidelined in the elections, while others see an opportunity to change course and once again become relevant."

He added, "You're not going to win by setting preconditions like that in Iran, everyone knows that."

While Khatami and Rafsanjani may be the reformists' only hope for revival, it's yet to be seen if they'll decide to align themselves with the party or not. 

"If either men decides to run, they may form a camp under a new umbrella," says a professor at Tehran's Shahid Beheshti University, who asked to remain anonymous. 

"To form a new camp ... will have its advantages, like distancing themselves from the criticism the party has faced, notably since 2009," he adds. "Rafsanjani has a better chance because he holds a high position in government. There is no way he will be disqualified by the Guardian Council."  

For now, Mostafa Kavakebian is the party's official candidate, one of the few who has announced his candidacy. Kavakebian is editor in chief of Mardomsalari  newspaper, the official newspaper of the Mardom Salari (democracy), a party he formed in 2000. Unlike many of its kind, the paper has been in print without interruptions since 2001. It has become known for its criticism of President Ahmadinejad and his economic policies. 

Kavakebian, a former member of parliament for the reformist party, sought to keep his seat in the 2012 legislative elections, but was not elected. Other than leading a number of reformist groups, there isn't much known about him and the policies he hopes to pursue, notably on the international front. 

"That's not necessarily a bad thing, past elections have shown that lesser known candidates have had a good chance of winning," says the professor. "Someone with a clean slate may be better to deal with domestic and international issues, there are no preconceptions." 

Kavakebian had previously said that if former president Mohammad Khatami stood as a candidate, he will withdraw his candidacy, according to the English language daily Tehran Times

Iran's presidential elections will be held on June 14, 2013. 

Susan Modaress has been covering international news since 1996, both as a reporter and documentary filmmaker. She has covered stories in Egypt, Lebanon, Haiti, Iran and Iraq. She tweets @susanmodaress.

Found in: mohammad khatami, democracy

Susan Modaress has been covering international headline news and events since 1996 as a journalist and documentary filmmaker. She has covered stories in Egypt, Lebanon, Haiti, Iran and Iraq. On Twitter: @susanmodaress

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