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Iran: Are the reformists using rope-a-dope tactics on hardliners during presidential campaign?

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Kamal Nazer Yasin
Publication Date 25 February 2009
Cite as EurasiaNet, Iran: Are the reformists using rope-a-dope tactics on hardliners during presidential campaign?, 25 February 2009, available at: [accessed 20 January 2018]
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Kamal Nazer Yasin: 2/25/09

As Iran's presidential election campaign gears up, the intentions of some of the highest-profile contenders are growing more mysterious. This is especially true for Mohamad Khatami, the chief standard bearer of reform.

When Khatami, who served as president from 1997-2005, announced in early February that he would mount another run for the presidency, he insisted that he had a chance at winning. He may still be saying that, but few political observers believe he stands a chance on his own. Indeed, some say that by becoming a candidate at this time, Khatami risks inflicting irreparable damage to his own political reputation, and, more broadly, to the reformist cause.

So why is he in the race? With just about three-and-a-half months to go until the presidential vote, the question of Khatami's intent is the subject of heated speculation in Tehran.

Some experts believe that, using a track & field analogy for a long-distance race, Khatami is acting like a rabbit – setting a fast pace at the outset only to drop out before the end. His chief purpose under this scenario would be to rev up his reformist base, which, since his election defeat in 2005, has remained apathetic and has stayed on the sidelines of Iran's political process. He could also use his candidacy as a platform to discredit the incumbent administration and expose its venality.

The goal, of course, is to defeat the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hardliner whose confrontational style has embroiled Iran in a standoff with the international community over the country's nuclear program, and whose domestic policies have driven the Iranian economy into a dead end.

Many analysts believe it will be hard, if not impossible, to beat Ahmadinejad in the June election, given that a powerful array of interest groups, most notably the Revolutionary Guards, stands behind him. In addition, he seems to enjoy the firm support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Just about the only way to unseat Ahmadinejad would require reformists to get a large turnout from their base, as well as win cross-over voters who in previous elections have tended to support mainstream conservative candidates. Building such an electoral coalition would appear to be a daunting challenge, given that mainstream conservative politicians were a critical part of the right-wing coalition that undermined Khatami's presidency, and that eventually sent him packing.

But it seems that, within the context of Iran's opaque political system, Ahmadinejad's penchant for excluding all but members of his neo-conservative-thinking inner circle from the decision-making process has alienated many of right's numerous factions. This frustration among the center-right with Ahmadinejad could possibly translate into a lackluster turnout-the-vote effort on election day. It also creates at least a theoretical possibility of a reformist-mainstream conservative electoral alliance. The Ahmadinejad administration's ruinous economic policies are fueling anxiety among many sectors of the electorate.

The growing disenchantment of some conservative factions with Ahmadinejad is well documented. For example, last December, two influential conservatives, Aliakbar Nategh-Nouri and Mohsen Rezaii – publicly called for the creation of a coalition government, one that would encompass all the known factions save the radical reformists.

More recently, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the influential vice speaker of parliament, openly warned Ahmadinejad, saying that failure to change his ways would force conservatives to look for another candidate. According to Maryam Behroozi, one of a handful of female conservative leaders in Iran, the disaffected factions planned to form a "shadow candidates' list." In explaining the reason for such an unusual step, Behroozi told the website Khabar Online: "The advantage of such a list is that if surveys showed a preference for a candidate from the shadow list, then we could switch to that candidate instead." Among the names on the list mentioned were Rezaii, Bahonar, and Tehran mayor Mohammad Reza Ghalibaf.

There is considerable debate about whether the mainstream conservatives are serious about mounting a revolt against Ahmadinejad or not. Some Tehran observers believe the conservatives are bluffing, hoping their threats can compel Ahmadinejad to share the perquisites of power with them. But others believe the mainstreamers' desire to be rid of Ahmadinejad is genuine.

Khatami to a certain extent holds the key to future developments. If he were to remain in the race, it is likely that most mainstream conservative leaders would choose the lesser evil, and throw their support behind Ahmadinejad. That would ensure a full-throttle turn-out-the-vote effort by a unified right, thus making a reformist upset a virtual impossibility.

Khatami's departure from the race, however, could possibly open the way for reformists to building a victorious electoral coalition. But to win, the forces of reform would still need to find a candidate who could keep the base excited while luring erstwhile mainstream conservative supporters. That candidate, political watchers say, could well be Mir Hossein Mousavi, who served as Iran's prime minister from 1981-89. Mousavi has long been a darling of reformists, and, at the same time, he enjoys widespread respect among mainstream conservatives. He is also reportedly a close friend of Khatami's. In January, just weeks before Khatami entered the race, he stated publicly he would refrain from becoming a candidate, if Mousavi entered the race. This particular comment helps to fuel speculation these days that Khatami might drop out of the presidential race, in favor of Mousavi.

For the last two decades, Mousavi has shunned the political spotlight, but he has sent signals that he is prepared to run for the presidency this year. But so far no official announcement has been made. Adding to the intrigue surrounding Mousavi's potential candidacy is his contentious relationship with Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. The ayatollah was president of Iran for much of Mousavi's tenure as prime minister, and the two did not coexist happily. Some political analysts believe that Ayatollah Khamenei continues to harbor a grudge against his former political nemesis.

Observers believe that Khatami and Mousavi are remaining mum about their plans out of a desire to keep Ahmadinejad and mainstream conservative leaders off balance. In keeping things vague, Khatami seems to have learned a hard lesson from the experience of his presidency, when, perhaps out of political naïveté, he did not attempt to mask his political intentions, and his opponents exploited his openness.

Possibly to further muddle the picture this campaign season, another reform-minded politician, Mehdi Karoubi, a former parliament speaker, has declared his intention to seek the presidency. On its face, Karoubi's candidacy would seem to doom the reformists' chances by splitting their vote. But for the time being, the presence of multiple reformist candidates in the field is perhaps lulling the right into a false sense of security. In addition, each reformist – Khatami, Mousavi and Karoubi – can appeal to a different segment of society. Khatami can mobilize urban intellectuals and members of the middle class, Mousavi has strong cross-over appeal, while Kharoubi's strength is his popularity in rural regions.

Publicly, Karoubi has announced that he is in the race for the duration. But some experts are not convinced, believing that he is somehow involved in a reformist plan to present a divided front during the early part of the campaign, only to unify at the last moment, and pull off an electoral upset.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, it seems fairly certain that the Iranian presidential campaign will feature a surprising twist or two.

Editor's Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.

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