On 16 March, Mohammad Khatami, a former president and the leading reformist candidate in the upcoming June’s presidential elections, unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy. Speculations surrounded the surprising announcement. The analysis offered here is an attempt to make sense of Khatami’s decision. Other analysts are invited to send us their own analyses to be posted on this blog (email: firstname.lastname@example.org ).
In early March, Khatami visited Shiraz, Yasooj, Bushehr and surrounding small towns and villages such as Mamasani’s Nourabad to jumpstart his campaign. The outpouring of support by the people surprised even his hardcore supporters and campaign organizers. In Shiraz, large crowd of people greeted him with a new slogan, “Islamic Republic Must Be Freed” (“Jomhouri Eslami Azad Bayad Gardad”). The support was not limited to large cities like Shiraz. In Nourabad, the instantaneous gatherings to greet Khatami during a stopover surprised many. Ahmadinejad was always thought as owning the votes in such small towns and villages. The campaign tour proved that Khatami was as popular as ever and could win the elections outright.
Khatami had entered the race with the assurance that he would be the sole candidate of the reformist camp. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former premier and a candidate of change, had signaled his reluctance to oppose Khatami. The Shiraz campaign tour showed the depth of support for Khatami.
The hardliners panicked. Kayhan ran a story comparing Khatami’s candidacy to that of the late Benazir Bhutto’s, a settled warning to Khatami of the consequences facing him if he ran for the presidency again. Their fear was that Khatami had learned from the shortcomings of his previous two terms and was now ready to introduce radical changes to reform the Islamic Republic. Or as the crowd in Shiraz had chanted, he was to free the Islamic Republic, from three decades of hardliners’ dominance.
A Bluetooth message widely distributed by the hardliners depicted Khatami as aiming his arrow toward Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, with a popular poem by the late Mohammad Reza Aqasi as the caption, “O Bow and Arrow in Hand, You Are Aiming My Lord Moula” (“Eye Tir O Kaman Be Kaf Gerefteh, Molaye Mara Hadaf Gerefteh.”) Khatami was being depicted as aiming to overthrow the regime as we know it.
On 11 March, Mir Hossein Mousavi, notwithstanding explicit understanding that he would not oppose Khatami, surprised the former president by “reluctantly” announcing his own candidacy.
The reformists panicked. A presidential campaign déjà vu! Four years earlier, they could not unite to support the candidacy of the pragmatic Rafsanjani, resulting in the nightmarish Ahmadinejad presidency. With Mousavi, Khatami and Karrubi running, Ahmadinejad could be assured of a second term. Khatami would not have any of that. “Me or Mir Hossein,” he had repeatedly told his supporters. Khatami bowed out.
But why did Mousavi decide to run, especially after witnessing Khatami’s popularity post Shiraz trip? It is becoming clear the hardliners could not accept Khatami’s victory. Khamenei “drafted” Musavi to run against Khatami. Although Mousavi was to be a candidate of change, his past history proved his absolute loyalty to the republic, and he would have caused a split in the reformist camp.
Musavi reluctantly accepted the call. But Khatami withdrew. Musavi was now running against Ahmadinejad. Notwithstanding “his” nuclear achievements, ironically Ahmadinejad might become the biggest loser in the hardliner’s move to stop Khatami.