How Khatami's Exit Could Be Good for Ahmadinejad

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(L to R) Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP ; Ramin Talaie / Corbis

(From left) Mohammad Khatami and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reason to smile: his opponents in this June's presidential election appear to be in some disarray. Former President Mohammed Khatami withdrew from the race late Monday, declaring his support for former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Moussavi. The news reflects the confusion in the anti-Ahmadinejad camp that began last week when Moussavi threw his hat in the ring. The reluctant Khatami had previously agreed to stand only after exhaustive negotiations with Moussavi had failed to convince the former Prime Minister to run against Ahmadinejad.

When Moussavi declared his own intention to run last week, some longtime reformist commentators expressed skepticism about his intentions. But Khatami had long made clear that he would run only as the consensus candidate of the anti-Ahmadinejad forces, and even then, reluctantly. He appears to have taken Moussavi's entry into the race as a cue to bow out and declare his support for the former Prime Minister. (See pictures of the legacy of Iran's revolution.)

In a statement announcing his withdrawal, Khatami hailed Moussavi as "faithful to the ideals of the revolution and the nation," saying he had "defended and will defend fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as people's right to determine their own destinies, the nation's interests and the country's international honor."

Conservative websites feasted on the news of Khatami's withdrawal. The pro-Ahmadinejad site Raja News presented a picture of a broken Khatami with divisions in his ranks. The site claims that in one session with supporters on Sunday, Khatami was asked why he was reluctant to persevere, and answered, "One of my apprehensions is that those around me aren't sincere. Three, four of the people who encouraged me to run also went after Moussavi and invited him to run."

Khatami supporters characterized the decision as one based on a desire to avoid splitting the anti-Ahmadinejad vote. "Mr. Khatami had said from the start that he would not run as a candidate if Mr. Moussavi decided to run," said an aide sitting in on the final negotiations about Khatami's withdrawal, who requested anonymity. "Now he is only acting on his words. He does not want there to be a split among reformists. With divisions among reformists, there is no chance for us to win."

Still, Khatami's supporters had tried desperately to persuade their man to stay in the race rather than concede to Moussavi, who has more centrist supporters and has fewer opponents among the fundamentalists who dominate Iran's political system; while all the newspapers associated with Khatami's original reform movement have been closed down, for example, Moussavi was recently given permission to start a paper of his own.

Monday's meeting of Khatami supporters, said a source, was focused on finding the most effective strategy for defeating Ahmadinejad by uniting behind a single candidate.

But the picture is further complicated by a third reformist candidate, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who may not agree to step aside. In the 2005 election, similar attempts to settle on a single candidate to run against Ahmadinejad faltered, in part because Karroubi insisted on staying in that race.

Ahmadinejad's path to re-election could be made more difficult, however, if he's challenged by some of the more pragmatic conservative elements who've been alarmed by the incumbent's handling of the economy and foreign policy. For now, Ahmadinejad is the sole conservative candidate, but Tehran mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf has signaled his intention to run, and there has also been talk of a presidential bid by former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who carries the backing of such powerhouses in the pragmatic centrist ranks as former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the clerical body that elects the Supreme Leader.

Moussavi's appeal lies in the fact that was a popular Prime Minister during the Iran-Iraq war, and is credited with having done a good job managing the nation through some of its most trying economic times. During his tenure, the current Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, had been president, and when the two men disagreed, Moussavi is said to have often won the support of then Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic. Arriving to deliver his first speech as a presidential candidate on Saturday in the south of Tehran, Moussavi was greeted with chants of "Blessings to Prophet Muhammad. Khomeini's companion has come."

The conservatives certainly see Moussavi as a more formidable enemy than Khatami. The political editor of the conservative daily Resalat, Amir Mohebbian, said in an interview with the Ghalam website, "If Moussavi enters as the solitary candidate of the reformists, he has high chances of winning in the elections, and if people like Khatami support him as well, he will have the support of young voters too." In the same interview, Mohebbian added, "What is clear is that the fundamentalists prefer him over other reformist candidates," and that Moussavi had more opponents among what Mohebbian called "extremists" in the reform movement.

After Moussavi's term ended, the post of Prime Minister was abolished. Moussavi exited politics and went into what has in the Iranian media been referred to as "20 years of silence." In those years, Moussavi committed himself mostly to cultural affairs, including his career as a painter. Now, in order to be a serious contender, Moussavi will need to attract young voters, many of whom are too young to remember his premiership. In an editorial on Rooz Online, 32-year-old Masih Alinejad asks where the former Premier was during all "those years in which the young generation suffered heavy wounds."

The turmoil over Khatami and Moussavi reflects the reformists' challenge of finding a single candidate capable of winning support not only from traditional reformist voters, but also from less engaged, moderately conservative voters — and, at the same time, ensure that such a candidate offers enough promise of change to prevent the young voters Khatami attracts from staying away from the polls. It's a real dilemma, and one that Ahmadinejad's backers are clearly enjoying.

Read more about Ahmadinejad.