Iran's Presidential Election Searching for the Antidote to Ahmadinejad

In Tehran, reformers and conservatives are preparing to fight for the Iranian presidency in 2009. The opposition is pinning its hopes, once again, on former President Mohammad Khatami. But will he run?

The group consists of 120 men, from students to old men, all of them dressed in their best jackets, shirts and trousers. Without much in the way of provisions, but filled with courage, they board rickety long-distance buses in Semirom, a town in far western Iran, or squeezed into private cars. The nighttime journey takes eight hours, with only one stop for morning prayers, somewhere along the road between Isfahan and Tehran.

The destination of this caravan from rural Iran is a house at Yassir Street No. 4, in the far northern section of the Iranian capital, where a single square meter of construction land costs more than most Iranians earn in a year. The house, an old villa hidden by high walls, is the home of a man who, according to the teacher Amir Hossein Rashidi, is "the only one who can still save us." He is Mohammad Khatami, 65, a man celebrated as a reformer, and a former president of the Islamic Republic.

The black iron gate opens quickly, and Rashidi and his cohorts are led past an empty swimming pool with missing tiles to the man on whom they have pinned their hopes. In a large prayer room with heavy Persian rugs, the men step forward to present their wish: "We have come to ask you to run for the next presidential election."

Khatami, visibly moved, invites his visitors to join him in prayer.

The religious scholar will need backing, including backing from within the highest circles, if he is to submit to the wishes of his many supporters and run for president, once again, in elections next June. Although elections in the Iranian theocracy have never been clean by democratic standards, political observers in Tehran fear that "the next election campaign will be dirtier than all others." Khatami's successor in the office, the zealot Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is determined to defend his power. For reformers and conservatives alike, the next election will be an all-or-nothing vote.

One question Iranians have asked themselves is whether Khatami -- who left the presidency, by law, in 2005, after two consecutive terms -- can breathe new life into a more or less defunct reform movement, as his supporters hope. Or will the re-election of President Ahmadinejad isolate the country even further, thereby ruining the reputation of the conservatives once and for all, as critics within their own ranks fear?

When it comes to the upcoming election, the one certainty is that reformers and conservatives have both lost a great deal of support within the population. The conservatives are seen as braggarts who have failed to fulfill rosy promises of affluence, even for the poor. The reformers, on the other hand, whose rise to power began in 1997 with the landslide election victory of then-newcomer Khatami, are considered spin doctors whose promises have routinely foundered on vetoes by the arch-conservative Guardian Council, or religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

'Trial and Error'

Nevertheless, even a declared realist like Mohammed Atrianfar, 55, is confident that the reformers can regain their former popularity. Atrianfar, who wears a salt-and-pepper beard, is the editor-in-chief of the weekly political magazine Sharwand-e Emrus (Citizens of Today), one of Iran's relatively critical publications.

In the 2005 presidential campaign Atrianfar was an advisor to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, supposedly the clear favorite in that election. After two previous terms in office, and a mandatory interim period required under Iran's constitution, Rafsanjani -- probably the country's richest man -- had decided to try for a third term. But many citizens unwilling to vote for an oligarch like Rafsanjani opted not to vote at all. Ahmadinejad was elected on a tide of right-wing populism.

This time around, Atrianfar believes it will be easy to mobilize students and the middle class to support Khatami. Hardly anyone questions his personal integrity.

According to Atrianfar's calculations, there is significant vote potential for the model mullah. In the last presidential election, reformist candidates captured 16 million votes, while the traditionalists and radical conservatives under Ahmadinejad received only 12 million votes. Surveys, even those conducted by the right, indicate that Khatami is still a popular hero. In those polls, the religious scholar is a full 27 points ahead of the revolutionary fanatic Ahmadinejad. "Very few people have our president's talent," Atrianfar says derisively, "to alienate so many friends and supporters."

One man who can thank Ahmadinejad for his victory -- and who's now one of his sharpest critics -- sits in his small office at the University of Tehran, looking disappointed. Mohammed Koshereh, a 53-year-old economics expert, saw Ahmadinejad as a "champion of justice" and "revolutionary values." Koshereh's appearances on television are believed to have given the campaign of the then mayor of Tehran the boost it needed.

Both Koshereh and many voters are upset that Ahmadinejad's ideas about how to implement his promises differed so sharply from those of Koshereh, an economist, and most other experts in the country. Koshereh characterizes the government's policies, which have driven the country to the brink of ruin, as an ebb and flow of "trial and error." Ahmadinejad has largely isolated Iran internationally with his sharp verbal attacks against Israel and his conflict with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.

Tightened sanctions by the UN have been a heavy burden on the Iranian economy, which is already ailing as a result of corruption and mismanagement. The real inflation rate is estimated at above 30 percent. More than one in three Iranians aged 19 to 29 is unemployed. One in five lives below the poverty line. Only the country's enormous oil revenues of close to €50 billion ($69 billion) are current saving Iran from bankruptcy.

Only Ahmadinejad's closest advisors, like Ali Akbar Jawanfekr, believe the president "tirelessly serves the people" and can "demonstrate great successes." Jawanfekr defends his position with statistics like last year's increase in concrete production -- from 37 to 55 million tons. He proudly notes that Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Khameni, recently made a point of praising Ahmadinejad. "Do not think that this is your last year," the ayatollah told the president before the assembled cabinet. "No, you should work as if you had another five years ahead of you."

In Tehran, even conservatives are divided over whether Khamenei's remarks were meant as a clear endorsement, or were merely intended to lend support to the beleaguered president. Leading right-wing thinkers, like journalist Amir Mohebbian, are already in the process of developing a second conservative candidate.

The Tehran politician analyst is considered a strategic leader of the so-called pragmatists, who seek a middle road between revolutionary zealots and reformers.

Their favorite to succeed Ahmadinejad is Ali Larijani, the 50-year-old speaker of the parliament. Iran's former top nuclear negotiator resigned over the president's stubbornness and has been a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad since his party captured the majority in the spring parliamentary elections.

But Larijani would have to give up his influential office to run for the presidency. This, says Mohebbian, is something the Ahmadinejad rival will not do, because he is unwilling to take the risk of losing to Khatami and the president in the first round of the election.

A more decisive and popular potential candidate is Mohammed Ghalibaf, 47, the mayor of Tehran and a former police chief, who has been an effective manager of the city of 12 million people. Modern trash containers how stand at every other street corner, in the winter an efficient road service keeps the streets free of snow and ice, and all construction projects are now given a precise time frame that specifies an exact completion date. More and more projects are even adhering to their planned completion dates. The mayor, as his friends believe, could win more votes than the current president, at least in the first round.

While Ghalibaf continues to portray himself as an energetic manager and Ahmadinejad gathers the support of the military and militias, with their more than five million members, Khatami must be careful not to disappoint his most loyal followers in the early stages. The teacher Rashidi and his group from Semirom, at any rate, look dejected as they leave Khatami's Tehran residence after spending two hours there. Hoping for a clear promise from their idol that he would return to politics, they left with nothing but the sense that he still feels hesitant. With the words "I think about the election day and night. And I think about whether I can make good on my promises," Khatami said, evading his visitors' request.

For the time being, Khatami is unwilling to commit to more than a decidedly ambiguous statement when it comes to his own aspirations to capture the office. "I am filled with hope, but confidence tends to be low."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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