Pressure on Khatami to run again
Published: December 18 2008 17:28 | Last updated: December 18 2008 17:28

Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist president of Iran, receives dozens of 
visitors who travel to Tehran to pay their respects.

Sitting on carpets in a spacious living room, the visitors, who come from all 
walks of life, are united in their demand: they want Mr Khatami to run for 
president in next June's election and end the era of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad.

The pressure on the 65-year-old cleric, who served as president for two terms 
before Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, has intensified in recent weeks.

People from dozens of provinces across Iran have been streaming to his office, 
arguing that he is the only politician with sufficient popular support to beat 
Mr Ahmadi-Nejad - who is expected to run, though he has not yet declared his 
candidacy. Those clamouring for Mr Khatami's return include many reformists but 
also some prominent conservative politicians.

In a meeting attended by the Financial Times this month, one student 
representative told Mr Khatami that if he decides not to run, he will be 
ignoring the wishes of students, women and workers.

A woman activist joins in, saying that a political leader should not stand back 
and expect to be invited to Iran's power circles - he must fight for his place. 
"If we stand up and move forward, then we will not be ashamed before God, the 
country and history," she says.

The emotional pleas, some laced with poetic verses, move the cleric to tears. 
Mr Khatami tells his visitors that if he is hesitating, it is not because he is 
afraid of the challenge. The former president says he is not looking for a 
comfortable, non-controversial life. He simply wants to make sure that his 
candidacy would help, rather than exacerbate the country's problems.

But, should he become president again, Mr Khatami vows, he would not compromise 
on his call for a more democratic government. The former president tells his 
guests that economic development cannot be achieved without democracy. "In this 
country democracy must rule . . . freedom must be defended," he says.

Next year's poll comes at a crucial time in Iran's nuclear dispute with the 
west, which has escalated since Mr Ahmadi-Nejad was elected in 2005. Although 
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has the final say on nuclear 
policy the president has significant influence. Iran's presidential election 
comes as the US looks for a possible shift in policy towards Tehran, with the 
new administration of Barack Obama expected to try to launch a dialogue. 

Officially, Mr Khatami has until April to register as a candidate but he is 
expected to make up his mind much sooner than that.

Although some of those close to him say that the pressure to run is becoming 
intolerable, Mr Khatami's reluctance is born out of his troubled experience 
during the two terms he served from 1997 to 2005.

He used to say that he faced a crisis every nine days as he tried to advance 
reforms that were opposed by unelected institutions in Iran. His push to 
provide greater freedom to political and human rights activists was not always 
successful while many ordinary people felt his presidency ignored their daily 
economic struggles. The surprising 2005 victory of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, a radical 
conservative, was a harsh blow to reformists. Iran's hardliners have continued 
to undermine the reformists since, hoping to prevent them making a comeback.

Mr Khatami's supporters say they have more realistic expectations of what he 
can deliver if he were to become president again.

"We don't want you to resolve problems overnight. We want at least to have the 
minimum standard of life," says one visitor who complains about economic 
hardship and spiralling prices.

"People do not have any specific expectations . . . even for [political] 
reforms," another visitor tells Mr Khatami, expressing concern about the impact 
of international sanctions imposed because of Iran's nuclear programme.

Regime insiders say it is doubtful that the supreme leader would be pleased to 
see Mr Khatami back in power. Many reformists worry that the regime might 
mobilise its financial and logistical muscle against the former president.

Ayatollah Khamenei praises Mr Ahmadi-Nejad as "revolutionary, committed, 
efficient, active and brave", in what analysts and diplomats say was a veiled 
warning to Mr Khatami to stay away from the poll.

Mr Khatami may be the strongest but is also not the only reformist candidate. 
Some reformists are supporting Mehdi Karroubi, a mid-ranking cleric who has a 
record of speaking out and defending political prisoners. He has already 
announced his candidacy but would be expected to withdraw if Mr Khatami joins 
the race.

Many of those who attended the meeting leave unsure whether Mr Khatami will 
heed their calls. 

His final remarks to the gathering are that the rise of one individual is not 
important. "What matters is who can do a better job," he says.

Push for power: the likely presidential contenders

?Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran's president, has not yet announced his intentions 
but there is little doubt he will seek re-election in June. 

?Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate reformist, still believes he should have gone into 
the second round of presidential elections in 2005 and alleges that rigging 
helped Mr Ahmadi-Nejad sweep to power. Reformists say they would have supported 
the 71-year-old if they were convinced he had a reliable popular base. 

?Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, a fundamentalist, has been Tehran's mayor since 2005 
after he lost the presidential election. A former Revolutionary Guards 
commander, he is considered a moderniser and respected by different political 
groups as an efficient manager. 

?Hassan Rowhani, a moderate conservative, is best known as Iran's top nuclear 
negotiator from 2003 to 2005. The 60-year-old is believed to have received the 
green light from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and has recently 
increased his attacks against Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's economic policies. 

?Ali Larijani, a traditional conservative, repaired his image in domestic 
politics by winning parliamentary polls earlier this year and was elected 
speaker. However, analysts believe he might not risk his current strong 
position by running for president. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008


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