Change Comes to Iran

Yesterday's UN announcement that Iran has enough uranium for a bomb has raised the stakes on the upcoming presidential election there. A former adviser to Ahmadinejad and his challenger Khatami on the strange race that will shape Iran’s future.

Atta Kenare, AFP / Getty Images

Seyyed Mohammad Khatami’s proverbial toss of his hat, or more precisely his turban, into the presidential candidates’ ring in early February was a clear signal that the Iranian elections of 2009 may turn out to be the most interesting since presidential politics began in that 2,500-year-old nation, a monarchy for all but the most recent 30 years. That Khatami also chose to declare his candidacy a mere two days before the nation was to celebrate that 30-year anniversary may have been accidental, for Khatami had been under tremendous pressure to run from various sides of the multi-faceted Iranian political spectrum. But it nonetheless stole some of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s thunder (and the precious media time he craves), and added an element of excitement to the domestic political scene not entirely distanced from the excitement many Iranians felt about Barack Obama’s win in the US elections only a few months prior.

What Khatami will bring is an almost willful neglect to the Israel issue, which many Iranians understand is one way to alleviate the pressure.

Khatami, once viewed by many both inside and outside Iran as Iran’s Gorbachev (and perhaps also as an Obama-like figure for change), but later dismissed by many (and even reviled by some) as ineffective, has portrayed himself as a reluctant candidate who is doing nothing more in running for office than his solemn duty to his people. And that duty, at a time when Iran’s economy is suffering badly, the government is deeply unpopular, and, perhaps just as importantly, when the US, Iran’s traditional bête noir, has as its president a man almost impossible to demonize, is at once obvious and daunting.

Mohammad Khatami has no illusions about the power of the presidency in Iran, and one might wonder what it is he thinks he can accomplish from his laundry list of wishes the next time around that he was unable to tick off during the last two terms he served, from 1997 to 2005. But he has, like many Iranians, been witness to a frighteningly cavalier approach to governance by his successor, as well as what could be best described as a malaise and weariness in the general population unrivaled except during the darkest days of revolutionary excess or major setbacks during the war with Iraq. Unlike many other Iranians, though, he believes that he might be able to do something about it.

Khatami could have forever ended his political career by not running, and may in fact end it by running and losing. Yet he is acutely aware that his legacy, one of timidity (which he privately jokes about being endemic to Yazdis, residents of the city he and I hail from) will only be countered by a forceful candidacy, one willing to go head to head with the very forces that he was accused of giving in to, and one which, if successful, will grant him a mandate for the kind of change in Iran that he has been calling for since he was first elevated to the post of president, and resonates now more than ever. (Curiously, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader and a force Khatami often faced while in office, while ethnically Turkic is also half Yazdi, but he seems not to have inherited the timidity gene from his mother.)

Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not actually be absolute polar opposites politically, for they might agree on such matters as allowing women to attend soccer matches, reducing the power of the clergy (which Ahmadinejad, as Iran’s first lay president since the early days of the revolution has accomplished by default), or even the importance of good relations with the outside world (which Ahmadinejad does believe in sincerely). But their battling each other for the presidency will mark a crucial moment in Iranian history when two radically different personalities who despise one another, with radically different ideas on what the Islamic revolution means today and where Iran’s future lies, will present themselves to an electorate fully aware of the challenges the system, and Iran face.

Apart from differing on economic policy (and Ahmadinejad’s seeming eagerness to use state funds and to print money to solve every societal problem), Khatami’s view of government is a post-revolutionary one, while Ahmadinejad is firmly stuck in 1979, right down to the cut of his Members Only-style jackets. The Arab and Muslim street may rejoice at Ahmadinejad’s belligerent rhetoric concerning Israel, but rhetoric aside, Iran’s Israel policy, a one-state solution, will remain unchanged unless the Supreme Leader decides differently. What Khatami will bring is an almost willful neglect to the Israel issue, which many Iranians understand is one way to alleviate the pressure.

Various analysts and experts have remarked either on the irrelevancy of the presidential elections (in light of the Supreme Leader’s absolute power) or on the fact that Khatami’s candidacy is doomed as long as the Supreme Leader continues to show support for Ahmadinejad. Their analysis is inaccurate on both counts. The presidency is not the most powerful position in Iran, and yet, as both Khatami and Ahmadinejad both also know better than most, it is not as irrelevant as some might think. The Supreme Leader does indeed make policy, and is in effect the president’s boss. But he is influenced by the president and has traditionally given him great leeway in doing his job, if only to lend credibility to Iran’s claims to a democracy. For all the times Khatami faced resistance or rejection from the ruling clergy, so has Ahmadinejad, for the Supreme Leader traditionally shuns extremism from both the left and the right. As for his support of Ahmadinejad and his re-election being a foregone conclusion, it should be remembered that the Supreme Leader actively supported Khatami’s opponents both times he ran (blatantly supporting the conservative Nateq-Nouri in 1997), and yet Khatami won with overwhelming majorities. (When I was in Tehran in September and Khatami’s candidacy was the subject of speculation, one quip I heard was that the Khamenei, by backing Ahmadinejad, will ensure a Khatami win merely because the people will vote for whomever the Supreme Leader is against. And Khamenei knows it. )

But what Khatami is aware of today, and what may have been one factor in his decision to run for office again, is that President Ahmadinejad, for all his boorish behavior and his general incompetence in governance (and appointing true incompetents to his cabinet), has done Iran a favor by setting a precedent for increased power in the office of the presidency. More often than any of his predecessors, Ahmadinejad fearlessly struck out on his own, even on issues once taboo, without consulting the Supreme Leader or thinking about the reactions of the clergy, his political allies, or his enemies. Khatami, who was perhaps too mindful of what his enemies or what the Supreme Leader might think or do, may continue to be respectful of the velayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), which is the foundation of the Islamic Republic. But he would not be running if he didn’t believe that his personal political philosophy, a philosophy that envisions the role of the Supreme Leader to be one more of guidance than rule, had a better chance of success in establishing itself in Iran’s system than when he last sat in the president’s chair.

Despite his undeserved reputation as an elitist, Khatami pioneered the populist, almost Western-style campaigning that Ahmadinejad has since adopted—the tours of the provinces, the baby-kissing, the personal appearances. One would expect that he will repeat the form of his 1997 campaign with added attention to the urgency of Iran’s faltering economy and nuclear crisis with the West. Khatami is extremely likeable and charming up close, and even those who consider him weak-willed will admit that he can be disarming and persuasive. Ahmadinejad has his own charms (particularly in person), and although he can claim popularity ratings at the same level as George W. Bush in his last year as president, his appeal mustn’t be discounted, whether or not the Supreme Leader intentionally (or unintentionally) backs him. But he has his enemies, the extremely powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani for one, and now, it appears, a more openly hostile Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament, who also happens to be extremely close to the Supreme Leader. When Khatami announced his candidacy, Larijani, who had once sneeringly referred to Khatami’s suspension of uranium enrichment as “exchanging pearls for a piece of candy,” publicly welcomed it as good for Iran and Iranian democracy. And less than a week later, Larijani referred to the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad’s puerile obsession the last few years (and a reason it may impossible for any Western leader to sit at the same table with him) as not only real, but having “nothing to do with Iran.”

Iran’s elections, a very senior Iranian official once told me, can be manipulated to the tune of between 200,000 and 300,000 votes, and no more. It made sense, given the fractured political climate and the hatred various politicians have for each other, as well as the rigorous attention they all pay to potential fraud at polling places. Unless a candidate squeezes by with a tiny margin, it’s fair to say any president elected is truly the preferred candidate of the people, although the influence of powerful men such as Larijani, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf (the mayor of Tehran), Rafsanjani, and the Supreme Leader himself can also be a factor in a country where political parties are far less relevant (and hardly even known by the public) than the outsized personalities that dominate the political scene. Those personalities can be counted upon to deliver the votes of many of their supporters, and that does not bode well for Ahmadinejad, who has alienated even the conservatives among them. In the years since he left the presidency, Khatami has maintained a low profile domestically, but he has maintained his relationship with the Supreme Leader, who he sees regularly (to the consternation of Ahmadinejad), as well as with Rafsanjani and others in the leadership. That he announced his candidacy is an indication that Ayatollah Khamenei approved of his running, and perhaps has even come to recognize that Ahmadinejad may be more damaging to the long-term stability of the Islamic Republic (something the Supreme Leader sees ensuring as his primary job) than someone like Khatami, whose “political tastes” as one senior adviser once told me, he does not share. In the age of Obama, “hope” and “change” it seems, might resonate in Iran, too.

Hooman Majd is a writer based in New York. He has served as an adviser and translator for Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on their trips to the US and the United Nations. His book on Iran, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, was published by Doubleday in 2008.