Will Khatami’s Withdrawal Spoil Obama’s Iran Plans?

The rapidly changing political scene in the Middle East is presenting kaleidoscopic challenges to President Barack Obama as a policy-maker.

It is of some moment who wins the June, 2009, presidential election in Iran. Former President Mohammad Khatami has just pulled out of the race, fearful that the three liberals in the race would split the liberal vote and hand victory to the conservative/ populist Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Khatami’s decision was spurred by the entry into the race of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, who had served as prime minister during the 1980s (when he was himself a hardliner; he has now moved to the left).

It is important, in trying to understand Khatami’s decision, to note that Iran typically has run-off elections after the first ballot, among the two top vote-getters. If all three liberals had run, they might have prevented any candidate from getting enough votes to meet the threshold for a run-off, thereby just handing the election to the hardliners.

Khatami, moreover, had the reputation during his two terms, 1997-2005, of being a “dagger without a haft,” i.e. lacking the ability to implement his ambitious agenda of greater individual and cultural freedom. It is not at all clear that he could have won a third term, in any case. The youth like what he says, but are disappointed at his inability to take on the hardliners. (The youth vote is especially important since, although the legal voting age was raised from 15 to 18 in 2007, the age group from 18 to 29 are fully a third of the population). Another former two-term president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, ran and lost in 2005.

Obama may make and end run around the uncertainties of the presidential election by
writing directly to the supreme theocrat, Ali Khamenei, to whom Ahmadinejad reports. I think this move would be brilliant and would immediately give the Americans the upper hand in follow-up governmental contacts.

Some of Ahmadinejad’s harshest internal critics focus on his mismanagement of the economy, as Farideh Farhi points out. The president has run inflation up to as much as 29 percent, deeply hurting students, the elderly and others on fixed incomes.

For challenges for Obama in the east, in Iran’s neigbor Afghanistan, see this essay at Tomdispatch.com

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