The decision by former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to challenge incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will pose a fascinating set of circumstances for both the Iranian people and the nascent foreign policy direction of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Khatami was President of Iran from 1997-2005. He was the fifth president of the Islamic Republic. The previous two presidents before Khatami currently serve as the two most powerful figures in Iran today. Former President Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i (1981-89) now serves as the nation’s Supreme Leader, having succeeded Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini upon his death. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-1997) succeeded Khāmene’i and is now the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts (electors of the Supreme Leader).
When Khatami assumed power in 1997 he was widely viewed as a reformer and a progressive thinker inside of Iran. Over time during his presidency, the ruling religious elite managed to rein in the reformist imagery that he had carefully crafted. Political expediency dictated that Khatami publicly retreat from his reformist ideology, prompting criticism from the reform movement in Iran. Simultaneously, a ground swell of conservatism in the country, as well as, the disqualification of many reformist candidates running for office on dubious grounds, ushered in the presidency of the former mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
An interesting dynamic is forming in the run up to the June 2009 presidential elections. Khatami will be up against the formidable incumbent Ahmadinejad and another reformist candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, who had a strong showing in the 2005 presidential elections, finishing third in the first round of voting. He is an outspoken cleric and has challenged the ruling theocracy, albeit cautiously, in the past. He dared to accuse the religious elite of manipulating the 2005 elections in favor of Ahmadinejad earning a strong admonishment from Supreme Leader Khāmene’i in the process.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that both Khatami and Karroubi will spilt the reformist vote forcing a run-off election between either candidate and the incumbent Ahmadinejad. Incidentally, the same occurred in 2005, when Karroubi, former President Rafsanjani and physician Mostafa Moeen split the reformist vote. Rafsanjani, who was the first round winner eventually lost to Ahmadinejad.
One thing is evidently clear with the upcoming elections. Should Ahmadinejad win the election, the Iranian government will almost surely strike a defiant tone in its negotiations with the Western powers over its nuclear ambitions. A reformist victory may invite a more mollifying approach from the Obama administration. Regardless of the results, any Iranian administration will demand that the United States be less arrogant and more conciliatory at the negotiating table. Iran will not negotiate if it feels that it must do so under duress and pressure. One thing is certain. The Iranian nuclear program will continue to expand regardless of the diplomatic overtures made by the Obama administration. The nuclear program is for the Iranians a matter of national energy security. A reformist victory will not change the nuclear chess match in the region.