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Iran: Khatami Campaign Focuses On Political Reform

By Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin

As campaigning gets underway for Iran's June 8 presidential poll, the election strategies of front-runner Mohammad Khatami and his challengers are becoming clearer.

Prague, 25 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami opened his re-election campaign this week by fielding questions from students, one of the key constituencies that voted him into office four years ago.

The televised broadcast on Wednesday (May 23) gave Khatami the chance to restate his belief that Iran can and must be a progressive Islamic nation. He told his audience that reforms to give the people greater freedom within the context of Iran's clerically led state cannot be stopped because, in his words, "freedom is as necessary as water."

Those are much the same themes that brought Khatami a landslide 69 percent of the vote in May 1997, when students, young people, and women turned out in large numbers in response to his promises of greater social freedoms and the rule of law.

That message four years ago was electrifying enough to bring out three-fourths of Iran's electorate to choose between Khatami and powerful conservative establishment candidate Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri.

But much has happened in Khatami's first term to dim some of the excitement he initially generated. As he spoke this week, he addressed a liberal camp still reeling from a conservative backlash that has brought many of his key reforms -- including his unfettering of the press -- to a standstill.

In the past year, Iran's hard-line judiciary has jailed scores of pro-reform intellectuals and banned almost 50 reformist publications -- all with the stated support of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader, to whom Khatami is both subordinate and loyal, has declared reformist journalists enemies of the Islamic system and ordered the newly reform-dominated parliament not to debate a press freedom bill.

Some analysts say that by launching his re-election bid with the same themes as four years ago, Khatami appears to be focusing his campaign strategy on convincing his supporters that Iran's system is reformable. That is something they once wholeheartedly believed in but today, to many liberal voters, looks far less certain then before.

RFE/RL regional analyst William Samii is closely following the Iranian elections and the mood of the voters in the run-up to the June 8 poll.

Samii says that Khatami is trying to rekindle enthusiasm among his supporters in the hope that if they again hand him an overwhelming mandate for change he can deliver better results in a second term:

"Khatami has to run using a forward-looking campaign strategy. What the reformists are trying to do is promote this whole idea of changing the system from within, and what he is trying to say is that 'I am not varying from my original path, I am going to keep trying to pursue what you voted for originally.' Basically, he doesn't have much of a record on which to run."

Khatami is free to work on rebuilding enthusiasm rather than having to justify or explain his setbacks because he faces no serious challengers in the presidential race. None of the nine other official candidates in the race enjoy anything like the power base of Khatami's establishment rival Nateq Nouri in 1997, and each is appealing to different and narrow sections of society.

The challengers include conservative former ministers, an academic, a lawyer, a doctor, and an admiral. So far, most have launched their campaigns by attacking Khatami's weakest point -- his economic record. The incumbent is widely perceived to have made little progress in improving Iran's faltering economy despite his calls for economic reforms.

Analyst Samii says that many Iranians see the country's high unemployment and double-digit inflation as pressing personal concerns even as the public debate of the last years has mainly focused on the issue of social reforms. He says many of Khatami's challengers hope to convert the economic frustration into ballots:

"Khatami has had four years of what most people see as economic decline. If it weren't for the rise in oil prices, the country would be in serious difficulties. As it is, they have a minimum 25 percent unemployment rate and these are the factors that his opponents are hammering on." Khatami's main challenger from the right, former Labor Minister Ahmad Tavakoli, has vowed to root our what he calls rampant corruption in the country.

Another candidate, current Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, says that none of Iran's major problems with unemployment, economic development, and public services has been solved because of what he calls factional battles. He is promising voters that he has the management experience and authority to make decisions firmly and quickly or to take action rather than mouthing slogans.

Still another hopeful, law professor Mahmoud Kashani, has promised to reduce the size of the state sector and boost private enterprise in hopes of making the economy more competitive.

But if most election experts give Khatami's rivals no chance of an upset victory, they could together reduce the size of the mandate he wins in two weeks. That danger could force him in coming days to rebuild confidence in his ability as a manager of economic change as well as rekindle enthusiasm for political reforms.

All the candidates for the June 8 election represent the results of a severe winnowing-down of a field of more than 800 people who originally submitted their names as would-be presidential candidates to Iran's electoral watchdog body, the Guardian Council.

The Guardian Council is composed of six clerics nominated by the Supreme Leader and six lawyers chosen by the parliament. It screens candidates for conformity with the values of the Islamic republic and revolution. But the criteria it applies are obscure to outsiders and to many of the disqualified candidates themselves.

One disqualified reformist candidate, Mohammad Mohsen Sazgara, recently told RFE/RL's Persian Service that he believes he met all the requirements of candidates under Iran's Constitution. These conditions include Iranian origin, a good past record, piety, and loyalty to the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic.

Sazgara told Persian Service broadcaster Mina Baharmast that he feels the Guardian Council's rejection of his candidacy was not legal. "According to the conditions registered by law, I am eligible and my rejection by the Guardian Council's decision does not have a legal bearing. I also think I have represented the wants and will of the people in my agenda. Therefore, actions such as these are truly worrisome and represent the deepening friction between authorities and the people."

Asked if he will now throw his support to Khatami, Sazgara said: "As I had announced before, we have to emphatically ask Mr. Khatami to take this election opportunity to energize the reformist movement and infrastructure and put an emphasis on the people's will. He has to clarify his position and have a clear agenda of the people's wants and will at this juncture. And then, of course, people like me would support his actions."

Four years ago, Khatami won more than 20 million of the 29 million votes cast. There are 42 million voters eligible for the June 8 election.