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Khatami's Demarche

By: Kamal Nazer Yasin in Tehran


Khatami's bid for presidency may be part of a reformist game of deception for confounding their hard-line rivals. - When Iranian reformists won in 1997, the news of their victory was as much a shock to them as it was to their wily opponents. According to several published accounts, the reformists had hoped, at the very most, for a small but respectable showing at the polls, perhaps 35% of the total counts, which could guarantee them a small niche for airing their views and influencing policy. Instead, a huge and unexpected landslide vote upset the conservatives' plans and propelled their reviled rivals to the heights of state power.


But the suddenness of the victory had another implication. It meant that the new ascending force was patently ill-prepared to rise up to the slowly-gathering revanchist challenge.


Despite an evidently large popular backing and despite a legal mandate from the Iranian electorate, the reformist enterprise came to a grinding halt within two years of the 1997 victory. The reform movement was outmaneuvered by a much tougher and cunning foe.


Now three and a half years after the election of a hard-line candidate, the reformists' golden boy is back making another go at it. 


Electoral minefield:


While Khatami's February 8 announcement has generated some interest among the usually-placid electorate, most people in the know believe that at this moment in time, recapturing the executive branch by an outsider like Khatami is simply out of the question.


First, the conservatives' front-runner, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, has the unqualified support of the entire Armed Forces, particularly Sepah (revolutionary guards) and Basij (paramilitary militia). In the last presidential election in 2005, the latter two followed a strict directive called "sepah guides" (Hadian-e Sepah) where on the election day, each enlisted personnel was obligated to mobilize ten other people from his circle of friends and relatives to vote for the favored candidate, in this case Ahmadinejad. That vote alone added up to millions of Ahmadinejad supporters.


If in 2005, the order to vote for Ahmadinejad was shrouded in secrecy, this time around, no such consideration exists. In the last few months, all the heads of the Armed Forces plus the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei have openly endorsed Ahmadinejad for re-election.


Secondly, in the last three years, Ahmadinejad has personally visited most of the country's provinces and distributed cash handouts or other payments to millions of people. Nearly 50% of voters reside in the provinces.


Thirdly, in a departure from past practice, the Interior Ministry has changed the composition of electoral oversight committees charged with providing supervision on the electoral process. In the past, they were mostly made up of teachers, community elders and town notables. Today, a high percentage are chosen from the Basij. In small towns and communities where people know one another on a personal basis, the issue of voter intimidation can not be discounted any longer.


Finally, there is the issue of voter apathy where many a potential Khatami voter could elect not to come to voting booths at all. In recent years, many people in Iran have simply lost hope that any meaningful change could ever result from their vote. For example, in the last parliamentary election, the conservatives won the entire 30-member Tehran slate with a mere 12% of the votes.


An electoral defeat, particularly with big margins, for Mohammad Khatami could badly and irreparably damage his stature as a national and international figure and strike a body blow to the entire reformist project for years to come.


Khatami himself seems aware of this peril. Last October, for example, he laid out a set of pre-conditions for his participation which to most experts were clearly intended to be rejected. Among the conditions was the demand that, if elected, no authority should be allowed to interfere with the dispensation of his official duties! 


So the big question is why is Khatami running at all? He is running ostensibly because, as the most popular reformist figure in Iran, his campaign could, in theory at least, re-establish communication with his constituency-the links were ruptured once Ahmadinejad came to power; it could re-energize a silent but sizable social base; and it can effectuate some changes at the level of the national discourse.


However, one can't help asking whether any of this is worth the price of losing his efficacy in present and future confrontations.


The conservatives' witches brew:


Unfortunately, loss of political stature is not the only drawback of a Katamai electoral run. The other major disadvantage is the forced banding together of all conservatives behind a single slate; that of Ahmadinejad's.


It is common knowledge that most conservative factions are ill-disposed to another Ahmadinejad run. Whether in economic policy-making, or in political appointments or in his managerial skills, Ahamdinejad's government has been a major disappointment to his former allies. Moreover, Ahmadinejad's style of leadership which excludes all but the closest associates from the decision-making process, has alienated the right's multitudinous factions from the hard-line president. (In fact, prior to Khatami's February  announcement, the right's attacks on Ahmadinejad were much more wide-ranging and trenchant than anything the reformists could ever muster.)


Last December, two influential conservatives, Aliakbar Nategh-nouri and Mohsen Rezaii-the former, the Traditionalists' standard-bearer, and the latter, the former head of the revolutionary guards-officially 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, warned Ahmadinejad that failure to rectify his ways would force the 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 reasons 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.


On February 8, all these calculations and machinations came to an immediate and premature halt. One after another, conservatives took turns pointing to Khatami's electoral announcement as the "red line" that could not be crossed. 


However, there are strong reasons to believe that these pre-February 8 maneuverings, far from being serious efforts to topple Ahmadinejad, were scare tactics intended to force concessions out of the recalcitrant president. After all, the right is equally aware of the formidable array of forces ranging behind Ahmadinejad. This much was, in a rare moment of candor, admitted by one of the president's most truculent rightwing critics, Gholamreza Mosbahi Moghadam, the head of the parliament's economic sub-committee. "Mr. Ahmadienjad already has 50% of the votes in his pocket," he told a newspaper reporter.


The only conceivable scenario is the following: the right is after wringing concessions from Ahmadinejad (such as securing future cabinet posts and other appointments) in exchange for supporting him in the election. They could now claim that they are easing pressure on Ahmadinejad because of the threats from the left while opening negotiations with him behind the scenes. (In fact it was announced last week that Ahmadinejad has accepted entreaties for an election-related meeting with the right's stalwart leader, Habibollah Askaroladi.)


A reformist ruse?


This brings us to the main matter at hand: what are the reformists really up to? Are they naively heading to another political disaster or, for once, they may be engaging in some divisionary tactic of their own?


There are reasons to believe that the latter may indeed be the case. Some time in mid-January, weeks before he announced his candidacy, Khatami told a group of student activists: "Either I would be the final reformist candidate or Mr. Moossavi."  Mir Hossein Moosavi is an important figure in post-revolutionary Iran even though he has lived in relative isolation for the past two decades. As prime minister during the Iran-Iraq years, Mossavi is known for steering the country out of an economic meltdown during the years of war and scarcity. Moreover, he is fondly remembered by some for his egalitarian streak which as a prime minister led to the lowest income gap in Iran's history. Another important feature associated with Moosavi's name is that ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader-who was then the country's president-clashed openly with him on his government's policies and orientations. It was known at the time that in the disputes between the two, the late ayatollah Khomeini often sided with Moosavi rather than his clerical rival. (Several times, it was only the intercession of ayatollah Khomeini that saved Moosavi from being sacked.) Most people believe ayatollah Khamenei still holds a grudge against Moosavi for past discretions.


On February 10, a Moosavi spokesman announced that Mir Hossein Moosavi will also be running for presidency; a statement that clearly contradicted Khatami's pledge that either him or Moosavi will be running but not both. The same spokesman took umbrage at Khatami for implying on another occasion that he was running because Moosavi had been unable to make a decision. The two men are long-time friends. They also share the same politics and worldviews. Such misrepresentations on both sides seem hard to fathom, to say the least.


Aside from these incongruities, another mystifying element has additionally been introduced into the mix. Mehdi Karoubi, former reformist clerical speaker of parliament, has also pledged that he would run for the presidency. Further he has also promised not to bow out to other reformist candidates "till the very last day". This is also curious since his refusal to defer to Khatami or Moosavi would splinter and spread the anti-Ahmadinejad vote.


The reformist gambit is probably as follows: ALL three reformist candidates would run simultaneously galvanizing the populace without necessarily impinging on each other's turf. Karoubi can appeal to many undecided voters particularly in the conservative and provincial regions. Moosavi can win over many of the left traditionalists and even some of the pro-Ahmadinejad constituencies to his side. And Khatami can attract the support of the middle classes and more modern-leaning sectors.


Moreover, and most significantly, Khatami could leave the campaign in favor of his friend Mir Hossein claiming that the two had no substantial differences in their political platform. This way, he would be saved a crushing defeat and the attendant loss of stature.


As if these intrigues were not confounding enough, the reformist newspaper Aftab quoted a famous rightist politician in its February 15 issue as saying that he planned to personally plead with Khatami in the coming days to stay out of the race altogether. The comment is significant since very few conservative politicians have been known to possess the courage to meet with Khatami in public. Ali Motahari, the son of the slain ideologue of the Islamic revolution and a major thinker in is own right, told the same paper that his aim from dissuading Khatami from running was to introduce alternative conservative candidates into the race, since "it is unlikely Mr. Ahmadinejad would be open to negotiations".


Observers note that since in Iranian politics everything comes at a price, this may be the beginning of reformists extracting concessions from conservatives for once. As well, the conflicting information coming out of the reformist camp has thrown the right into a state of confusion, preventing it from forging a common strategy with only four months remaining before the June election.


About the author: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a specialist in the Shia politics of the Middle East.

... Payvand News - 02/20/09 ... --

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