February 8, 2009

NIAC Memo: Can Khatami Make a Comeback?

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Iran’s former President, the soft-spoken Mohammad Khatami, ended months of speculations and revealed his bid to challenge the current Iranian President – the not-so-soft-spoken Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – in the upcoming Presidential elections in June.

“I declare that I will stand for the next elections,” Khatami told reporters on Sunday, according to Iran’s state-run news agency, IRNA.

With Khatami officially in the race, the Iranian presidential campaigns will begin in earnest. Never before has an incumbent Iranian president faced such a serious challenge. But in spite of Ahmadinejad’s abysmal handling of the economy, he is far from defeated. The Iranian presidential elections will not be democratic by Western standards, but they won’t lack excitement or fierce competitiveness.

Khatami had earlier declared that he would only run if he was given guarantees by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, that his candidacy wouldn’t be rejected by the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates, and that he would be able to govern if elected.

Khatami’s challenge now is to make sure that he can convince the Iranian populace three things. First, that he will show greater strength and willingness to challenge the political boundaries of the Islamic Republic. During his eight years as President, Khatami disappointed large segments of the population by being too timid and too unwilling to push the envelope to deliver on his promise of greater freedoms and reforms.

In comparison, Ahmadinejad has shown far greater chutzpah than Khatami ever did. For instance, while Khatami wanted to open up to the US, he never took any major bold steps and worried too much about the domestic political backlash from conservatives circles in Iran. When both President Clinton and Khatami appeared at the UN Millennium summit in New York in 2000, Khatami declined to appear in the photo-op with all other world leaders out of fear that the cameras would catch a glimpse of the two presidents shaking hands.

Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has shown far less sensitivity. Within his first years in office, he sent two letters to President George Bush – none of them cleared by Ayatollah Khamenei – a congratulatory note to President Barack Obama, and he appeared on virtually every network in the US giving one-on-one interviews with American journalists.

Perhaps by virtue of his bombastic and insensitive style, Ahmadinejad has shown how the envelope can be pushed and how taboos can be broken in Iran. Khatami should take note.

Second, Khatami must be able to mobilize his base – the more educated classes in Iran – and make sure that they vote. This may prove a difficult task. Khatami’s base has grown disillusioned with the political system in Iran and their low turn-out in the 2005 elections is believed to have enabled Ahmadinejad to snatch the presidency.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if elected, Khatami must show the courage to ruffle some feathers to implement his program. He has been given an undeserved second chance, an unexpected opportunity to run once more, which is largely due to the way Ahmadinejad’s poor performances has created nostalgia about Khatami. He won’t be given a third chance.

Khatami’s decision to run – and his potential victory – will have significant implications for the US. Though major shifts in the foreign policy arena should not be expected – Iran’s red lines on the nuclear issue are unlikely to change, for instance – a Khatami victory can help create an atmosphere that is more conducive to finding a mutually acceptable compromise between Iran and the West.

His decision to run will intensify temptations in Washington to hold back any effort to initiate diplomacy with Iran until after the election. These temptations should be resisted. The last thing Khatami needs is to be considered America’s candidate in the race. In fact, opponents to Ahmadinejad argue that they will have an easier time pursuing diplomacy with the US if negotiations are initiated already under Ahmadinejad and the conservatives. It will simply be more difficult for the conservatives to oppose and undermine US-Iran talks if those talks began when a conservative held the presidency.

If Khatami is elected and an opening is found between the US and Iran, Washington must make sure it breaks its bad habit of punishing moderates in the Middle East. The Bush administration ignored several attempts by the Khatami government to reach out to the US, and it put Iran in the Axis of Evil in 2002 only weeks after Washington and Tehran had worked closely together in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and institute a new constitution in Afghanistan. The failure of the reformist to reap any rewards for their more moderate and constructive foreign policy directly contributed to the ascent of Iran’s foreign policy hawks.

Khatami is still a long way from becoming Iran’s comeback kid. But if he does, both he and Washington must learn from their mistakes in order to make the comeback worthwhile.

Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US, a silver medal recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award.




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