Khatami reluctant to discuss candidacy

Iran's reformist former president has refused to confirm his candidacy in next year's presidential elections.

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TEHRAN // Mohammad Khatami, Iran's reformist former president, has refused to confirm his candidacy in next year's presidential elections, leading to concerns the reformist camp will not have a strong enough contender to challenge the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The popular Mr Khatami, 65, who was president from 1997 to 2005, was officially nominated last month by two major reformist parties - the Islamic Iranian Participation Front and the Islamic Revolution's Mujahideen Organisation - as their candidate for the presidency, expected by June. But a conservative newspaper recently said Mr Khatami could be disqualified from running by the country's hardline election watchdog, the Council of Guardians, which has frequently ruled out reformist candidates on the grounds they were not dedicated enough to Islamic and other nationalistic values. Analysts said Mr Khatami had been tight-lipped on whether he would run because of several reservations. They said he is concerned about being the target of a smear campaign in media owned by his opponents during the campaign and about his ability to rectify the problems caused by the current administration, particularly the economy and foreign relations. "The biggest challenge facing Khatami will be to overcome the problems created by the Ahmadinejad administration. It will take at least two years to reconstruct the country's management system and to return to the path envisaged by the development plans that they have totally ignored," said Mohammad Atraianfar, a member of the central council of reformist pro-reformist Servants of Construction Party. "It will also be very difficult to meet the huge expectations [Ahmadinejad and his administration] have created among the masses by empty promises," Mr Atraianfar said. Should Mr Khatami win the election, he would also face the urgent and difficult task of promoting a détente in international relations, said Hossein Marashi, also a member of central council of Servants of Construction Party. Mr Khatami is credited with improving the country's economy and international relations during his time in power. He is also known for advocating greater social and political freedoms and tolerance. Since Oct 1981, every president, including Mr Khatami, has won a second four-year term and Mr Ahmadinejad is unlikely to want to be an exception. Mr Ahmadinejad who has yet to officially announce his candidacy has hinted he intends to run for a second term by saying his economic reform plans need several years to implement. Since he was elected to the post in 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad has come under increasing criticism from reformists as well as conservatives and hardliners for his mismanagement of the economy and his fiery anti-West rhetoric. Inflation has soared to 23.7 per cent from 12 per cent in 2005; unemployment now stands at 9.5 per cent, while there is an inflated government budget and a greater reliance on oil revenues. The country has also come under increasing international pressure to curb its nuclear activities. Mr Ahmadinejad, however, still enjoys popularity among the poor whose lives he promised to improve when he became president. "I will vote for Ahmadinejad again if he runs in the elections," said Ali Zaman Alipour, 70, a worker in Tehran's carpet bazaar. "I have been working here for 50 years, packing and carrying heavy carpets with no retirement and no medical insurance. Life is very difficult and I hope he can improve it for people like me," he said. Principalist parties and groups have not yet nominated their candidate, but Mr Ahmadinejad would be their best choice to compete against Mr Khatami, if he decides to run, analysts said. The other likely reformist candidates include Mehdi Karrubi, the former parliament speaker. Mr Karrubi lost the 2005 presidential elections to Mr Ahmadinejad. Although nominated by his National Confidence Party, he has not yet confirmed he will stand. Unlike the charismatic and still very popular Mr Khatami, Mr Karrubi is unlikely to be able to unite the reformists behind him, something analysts said is crucial if they are to beat Mr Ahmadinejad. If reformists unite, behind any candidate, it is likely to be a very close election, said Jamshid Ansari, deputy chairman of parliament's reformist minority fraction. "Considering the hardships people have been through in the past three years and the impact of international pressures on the domestic situation, it will be very difficult for the Principalists' candidate to compete" with the reformist candidate, he said. If Mr Khatami decides not to run, it could see the two main camps splinter with several candidates from each. But if he does stand for the election, it would likely be a two-man race, Mr Atraianfar said. The main issues for reformists now are to convince the reluctant Mr Khatami to accept the nomination and to convince Mr Karrubi not to run if Mr Khatami does. "Mr Karrubi and his party are respected and integral members of the reformist front. They know well that it would not be expedient for the reforms movement to have multiple candidates. He will wait for Khatami to decide," Mr Marashi said. "If Khatami decides not to run, realism obliges reformists to try to unanimously support another candidate, like Mr Karrubi," he said.