Monday, February 09, 2009

Rejecting the Politics of Fear?

Trita Parsi passes along some interesting developments in connection with Iran's upcoming elections:

Iran's former President, the soft-spoken Mohammad Khatami, ended months of speculations and revealed his bid to challenge the current Iranian President - the not-so-soft-spoken Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - in the upcoming Presidential elections in June.

"I declare that I will stand for the next elections," Khatami told reporters on Sunday, according to Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA.

With Khatami officially in the race, the Iranian presidential campaigns will begin in earnest. Never before has an incumbent Iranian president faced such a serious challenge. But in spite of Ahmadinejad's abysmal handling of the economy, he is far from defeated. The Iranian presidential elections will not be democratic by Western standards, but they won't lack excitement or fierce competitiveness.

While the elections will be dominated, in large part, by economic concerns for obvious reasons, they will also be - at least to some extent - a referendum on Ahmadinejad's belligerent, confrontational posture vis-a-visthe West, as well as his conservative religious policies domestically. Khatami faces some obstacles in terms of convincing the Iranian population to give him another shot and, if so entrusted, must make tangible gains:

Khatami's challenge now is to make sure that he can convince the Iranian populace three things. First, that he will show greater strength and willingness to challenge the political boundaries of the Islamic Republic. During his eight years as President, Khatami disappointed large segments of the population by being too timid and too unwilling to push the envelope to deliver on his promise of greater freedoms and reforms. [...]

Second, Khatami must be able to mobilize his base - the more educated classes in Iran - and make sure that they vote. This may prove a difficult task. Khatami's base has grown disillusioned with the political system in Iran and their low turn-out in the 2005 elections is believed to have enabled Ahmadinejad to snatch the presidency.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if elected, Khatami must show the courage to ruffle some feathers to implement his program. He has been given an undeserved second chance, an unexpected opportunity to run once more, which is largely due to the way Ahmadinejad's poor performances has created nostalgia about Khatami. He won't be given a third chance.

The fact that he's running itself may signal a softening of the resistance among certain hardliner factions. Consider this bit from Parsi:

Khatami had earlier declared that he would only run if he was given guarantees by Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, that his candidacy wouldn't be rejected by the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates, and that he would be able to govern if elected.

His decision to run is not proof that he received such assurances, but there is cause for cautious optimism. Just as Ahmadinejad lacks ultimate authority on key aspects of foreign policy (and with respect to certain crucial domestic areas as well), so too will Khatami be checked by the Supreme Leader. But Khamenei's seeming willingness to countenance a run by Khatami (and possible behind the scenes guarantees) could indicate a slight opening from Iran's clerical establishment. If victorious, Khatami could be given a bit more leeway in terms of pushing for greater freedoms at home, and better relations abroad.

Further, the removal of Ahmadinejad - and his reckless and incendiary rhetoric - from the scene could remove at least a symbolic impediment to the pursuit of diplomatic engagement, while tamping down the overall anxiety in the Gulf regarding Iran's long-term intentions. If so, Parsi's conclusion is spot on:

If Khatami is elected and an opening is found between the US and Iran, Washington must make sure it breaks its bad habit of punishing moderates in the Middle East. The Bush administration ignored several attempts by the Khatami government to reach out to the US, and it put Iran in the Axis of Evil in 2002 only weeks after Washington and Tehran had worked closely together in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban and institute a new constitution in Afghanistan. The failure of the reformist to reap any rewards for their more moderate and constructive foreign policy directly contributed to the ascent of Iran's foreign policy hawks.

Khatami is still a long way from becoming Iran's comeback kid. But if he does, both he and Washington must learn from their mistakes in order to make the comeback worthwhile.

Change we can believe in.

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