BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — A leading Iranian moderate will drop out of the competition to challenge incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the country's presidency, the candidate's official website and several aides said Monday.
Former President Mohammad Khatami was the symbol during the late 1990s and early 2000s of Iran's now-struggling reform movement. Aides said he will officially drop his bid to become president today.
The Associated Press reported Monday night that it had obtained a copy of his letter announcing his withdrawal.
One source quoted by Khatami's official Yaari News site described his choice as a "moral decision above acquiring power." Khatami said that withdrawing from the running didn't mean he wouldn't participate in the election, aides told Yaari News.
The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that Khatami, who joined the race five weeks ago, made his decision after a lengthy meeting with Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a close ally and former prime minister. Mousavi announced March 10 that he would run against Ahmadinejad on a platform of economic pluralism.
Khatami had said he would back out and support Mousavi rather than compete against his friend and split the liberal vote. Another longtime Khatami ally, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, is also in the running.
"A number of rivals want to stir the electoral climate in order to create division among my supporters and Mousavi's supporters," the conservative Mehr news agency quoted Khatami as saying in private discussions. "It is not in our interest to take this campaign forward in this manner."
Khatami supporters were stunned by the news.
"I was baffled," said Kaivan Mehregan, a Tehran journalist and staunch supporter of the former president. "We were planning for his campaign. Then suddenly we heard the news. His reasoning was not convincing. Yes, some votes will go to Mousavi, but Khatami is the most popular."
Conservative pundits speculated that Khatami worried about sullying his reputation and losing popularity, especially if he did worse in the elections than he did in 1997 and 2001, when his victories were overwhelming.
"Khatami felt concern about two points," wrote Hossein Shariatmadari in Monday's issue of the right-wing newspaper Kayhan. "One is risk of social capital, which he gained during his landslide victory and is not sure to regain in the next election, and two, the risk of his associates . . . criticizing him for his failure in delivering."
Were he to have been elected, Khatami would probably have faced challenges from hard-liners, who sabotaged his attempts during his terms as president to soften Iran's domestic and international policies.
"He himself realized that if he runs again, the conservatives are going to make life impossible for him," said Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based analyst of Iranian politics.
Javedanfar speculated that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose power supersedes that of any president, may have discouraged Khatami's candidacy.
"Khatami is a polarizing figure," he said. "With the economic troubles that Iran has, it cannot afford to be even more polarized."
Insiders also said Khatami had little stomach to run in an election that would hinge on bread-and-butter issues. His soaring speeches about freedom of speech, civil society and democracy were music to the ears of his educated middle-class supporters a decade ago, but times have changed. Iranians now are focused on fixing the country's economy.
"The coming election is too complicated for Mr. Khatami's stomach to digest," said Saeed Leylaz, an Iranian commentator.
Many of Khatami's supporters are expected to throw their support behind Mousavi, who is relatively unknown among younger Iranians and remembered ambivalently by older ones. A recent survey of nearly 23,000 Iranians showed that 46% would vote for Ahmadinejad and 33% for Khatami, with both Mousavi and Karroubi receiving less than 2% of the vote.
Mousavi served from 1981 to 1989 as prime minister, a post that was more powerful than the then-largely ceremonial presidency but has since been abolished. He's considered to the left on economic issues and a relative liberal on social issues such as the rights of women and religious minorities.
But unlike Khatami, Mousavi is also close to Khamenei and perhaps a more palatable liberal for Iran's hard-liners. He is adept at addressing the concerns of the poor and lower middle class, analysts say.
On Sunday, Iran's Labor House, which represents industrial workers, endorsed Mousavi because "his slogans are in favor of the dispossessed and poor" members of society, a leader of the group said.
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.