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Khatami predicted to enter Iran presidential race

A confidant to Iran's former president says Mohammad Khatami will challenge President Ahmadinejad in June now that another prominent moderate appears to have backed out.

February 02, 2009|Ramin Mostaghim and Borzou Daragahi

TEHRAN AND BEIRUT — Iran's most prominent moderate politician will throw his hat into the ring in upcoming presidential elections, a confidant and former aide predicted Sunday.

Former President Mohammad Khatami, who reached out to the West during his term with a call for a "dialogue of civilizations," has been toying for months with the possibility of competing against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in crucial June 12 elections.

Now after another prominent moderate, former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, appears to have backed out, Khatami will almost certainly run, says former aide Mohammed Ali Abtahi.

"My prediction is that within a few days President Khatami will announce his candidacy," Abtahi said in a phone interview. "Khatami cannot afford not to run. He has to run now."

Khatami, 65, has repeatedly been quoted as saying that either he or Mousavi would run as a candidate for the reformists, as those within Iran's establishment who hope to broaden democracy and moderate the country's policies call themselves. News reports over the last few days have indicated that Mousavi might not run.

Conservatives and hard-liners in the country's ruling elite publicly hold the reformists in contempt but appear to fear Khatami, who is remembered fondly by many Iranians and is respected by officials and diplomats worldwide. Khatami now heads the International Institute of Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations, a think tank in Tehran, the capital.

"If Khatami does not run, there will be no chance for reformists to win," Fazel Maybodi, a reformist Shiite cleric, told The Times late last month.

The Obama administration has indicated that it wants to reach out diplomatically to Iran to resolve a number of issues, especially Tehran's controversial nuclear program. But some analysts say he should refrain from doing so while Ahmadinejad is the country's figurehead -- greater power is vested with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- lest it be seen as rewarding his hard-line policies and rhetoric against Israel and the West.

Khatami, a soft-spoken former culture minister, sought to ease Iran's strict restrictions on public life and calm tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West. He frequently talks about the benefits of democracy, recently calling it "the least costly, most beneficial way to rule."

Khatami and Abtahi, his former aide, are Shiite Muslim clerics who are being politically eclipsed in Iran by a new generation of men with backgrounds in the military or the Revolutionary Guards, an elite branch of the armed forces. The ranks of the emerging leaders include Ahmadinejad, who has announced his decision to run again.

Khamenei has been Iran's highest political and religious authority for nearly 20 years. The ranking ayatollah calls the shots on major foreign policy and security decisions and generally sets the parameters of domestic public debate.

Analysts say a decision by Khatami to run would show that he had enough confidence in the Iranian political system to grant him the possibility of winning. Khatami won 1997 and 2001 elections by huge margins, and his allies in parliament trounced conservatives in 2000.

But many of Khatami's attempts to moderate Iran's foreign and domestic policies were thwarted by hard-line conservatives who controlled other branches of government, and conservatives returned to power. Khatami was constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term in 2005 elections.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.

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