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Decision Time For Iran's Great Reformist Hope

Many Iranian reformists have been calling for the popular former President Mohammad Khatami to contest June's presidential election.
To run or not to run, that is the question for Mohammad Khatami.

The calls are growing louder for the former Iranian president, a reformist who held the office from 1997 to 2005, to enter an election race lacking contenders who stray from the norm.

It can't be an easy decision.

Khatami is being pushed hard as a potential game changer by reformists, whose camp has essentially been eliminated from Iran's political scene and are looking for more openness ahead of the election.

Doubters question whether there is any point to him running, considering the unlikeliness that the country's powerful Guardians Council, which determines the final list of candidates, will give its approval. And critics say that by entering the campaign for the June 14 election, Khatami would send the wrong message.

Doing so, they say, would give legitimacy to the establishment and undermine the efforts of those who have suffered for openly protesting the results of Iran's 2009 presidential vote.

Last week, 91 top reformist figures and several pro-reform groups called on Khatami to announce his candidacy for the elections.

‘Rare Popularity’

Among the reformists was Hadi Khamenei, who is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's brother, and Massoumeh Ebtekar, a former vice president and spokesman during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Khatami's "rare popularity" and "outstanding record" were cited as reasons that he would be an ideal candidate to pull Iran out of its current economic and geopolitical woes.

The call was followed by the Coordination Council of the Reformist Front, which said the 16 pro-reform groups that make up the council had agreed to back Khatami.

The council said in a statement posted on Iranian news sites that it reached its decision after considering economic, political, social, cultural, and international conditions, and after consulting with a number of experts, reformist groups, and parties.

Cleric Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a member of the Society of Researchers and Teachers of Qom -- one of the groups that has called on Khatami to stand, believes the former president could help ease the domestic and international tensions that Iran faces.

Addressing the prospect that the Guardians Council could ultimately deny Khatami a place among the final candidates, Ayazi believes he should run anyway.

"We can't say we shouldn't do anything just because [the Guardians Council] might disqualify him,” he says. “It's not logical. In the past they also weren't happy with his candidacy or willing to confirm him. But societal conditions can have an impact on their decision.”

‘Giving Voice To Civil Society’

Political activist Taghi Rahmani, who was jailed during Khatami's presidency and now lives in Paris, thinks a Khatami candidacy could facilitate the return of dissenting voices to Iran's political scene.

"His participation will create a current,” he says. “We need it because it will give a voice to civil society to make the [establishment] more cautious. I view any election or any political move inside Iran as the least costly path toward reforms. People are ready to pay this cost."

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister in Khatami's presidency, was jailed in the mass protests that followed the controversial reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2009. In an open letter from Iran's notorious Evin prison, Tajzadeh maintained that Khatami should not be "indifferent” to the fate of Iran and Iranians.

"Today all opinion polls conducted by the Intelligence Ministry to the Revolutionary Guards, [from] state television to the parliament, show that Khatami is the first choice of the people," Tajzadeh wrote, adding that Khatami's popularity has angered hard-liners.

Iranian journalist Mohammad Hossein Ziya is not sold on Khatami, however, believing there is more to lose than to be gained by the reformist's candidacy.

According to him, Khatami could help give legitimacy to the Iranian regime if he were to run.

"It would put under question all of the slogans of the [pro-democracy protesters], who chanted: 'Where is my vote?', and also genuine claims about fraud,” he says. “This is while two former election candidates -- opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi -- are under house arrest. Khatami's candidacy would mean ignoring them, ignoring the protests that took place and the protesters that were killed and those who are still in jail."

A Done Deal?

Musavi and Karrubi ran in the 2009 election and eventually united under the opposition Green Movement that openly opposed the results. The two were detained in February 2001 after calling for demonstrations in support of the Arab Spring, and were placed under house arrest.

Khatami angered many reformists and oppositionists when he voted in the 2011 parliamentary elections despite calls for a boycott.

Nicknamed "the smiling cleric," Khatami rose to power in 1997 with the overwhelming support of youth and women, to whom he had promised more rights, freedom, and lawfulness. Most of his reforms, however, were blocked by hard-liners and many of his supporters were jailed.

Khatami, who entered the 2009 race but eventually withdrew his candidacy to support Musavi, has done little to tip his hand on whether he will run this time.

Earlier this month, Khatami said that reformists have both the plans and the people "to save the country."

"Don't worry about my decision," he said on March 11. "I'm one person in the great complex of reformists. At the same time, I respect the view of the collective, which I hope is reached by consensus."

At least one pro-reform cleric claims that Khatami has already made up his mind.

Rahmatollah Bigdeli, a member of the central council of the Etemad Melli party, wrote on Facebook this week that Khatami's decision to run is a done deal.

The cleric, who claimed his opinion was based on a private meeting with Khatami, added that Khatami told him his only worry was that the elections could be manipulated.

Written and reported by Golnaz Esfandiari with additional reporting by Radio Farda correspondent Alireza Kermani
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.