Reformist to stand against Ahmadinejad in Iran election
Ian Black in Tehran The Guardian, Monday 9 February 2009
Muhammad Khatami, Iran's leading reformist, has said he will stand against the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in this summer's elections, opening up the prospect of significant change that could bring improved relations with the US.
Khatami, 65, ended months of speculation when he told supporters in Tehran yesterday: "I strongly announce my candidacy in the elections. Is it possible to remain indifferent toward the revolution's fate and shy away from running?"
Analysts said the decision would mean a dramatic contest in June, offering voters a candidate who promoted liberalisation at home and accommodation with the west when he served as president for two terms from 1997-2005 during the so-called "Tehran spring".
Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, is blamed for economic mismanagement and for isolating Iran by backing militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and by his strident attacks on Israel.
In an optimistic scenario, if Khatami became president again he could be the leader who, in the words of Barack Obama, would "unclench the fist" and improve Iran's strained relations with the US and the west. That would clearly have to include agreement to defuse the row over the country's nuclear ambitions. Iran says it wants to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but it is suspected of seeking to build nuclear weapons.
"The differences between Khatami and Ahmadinejad are bigger than between Obama and McCain," said Mustafa Tajzad, a former minister. "The results of the Iranian election will matter for the whole world."
Khatami has condemned his rival's "aggressive and blistering rhetoric", saying it "plays into the hands of the enemy, harming the country and the system."
Analysts and diplomats are divided over his chances of beating Ahmadinejad, so far supported by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who makes all key decisions.
Muhammad Atrianfar, a close ally, told the Guardian he believed Khatami could win. "We feel instinctively that people are reformists now, especially after such bad government by Ahmadinejad. Poor people who used to support him have turned against him."
Unofficial polling shows Khatami would beat the incumbent by a two-to-one margin, but an unusually big turnout - in the face of widespread voter apathy - would be needed to ensure victory.
Some fear Khatami may have harmed his chances by hesitating for so long over whether to throw his hat into the ring, reinforcing his image as a has-been.