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Khatami Withdrawal Shakes Up Iran Presidential Race

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Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's sudden withdrawal from the country's upcoming presidential race just five weeks after he had declared his candidacy has led some analysts to question whether he actually intended to run for office or was only trying to force the hand of another candidate.

Ken Katzman of the non-partisan Congressional Research Service here in Washington says that Khatami was only running to try to get another figure, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, to enter the race so he could get out.

"Khatami had always wanted Mousavi to get into the race and be the reformist candidate.  When Mousavi seemed to indicate that he would not get into the race, then Khatami got in so that the reformists would have at least one strong candidate.  But now that Mousavi is getting in, there is no need for both of them to be in the race," he said.

According to Iranian media reports, Khatami had called on Mousavi early last month to make up his mind about whether he was going to run.  When Mousavi made no move, Khatami announced his candidacy on February 8.  Then last week, Mousavi jumped in.  On Monday, Khatami got out.

Most analysts say Khatami was at best a reluctant candidate.

Reva Bhalla of the private intelligence firm Stratfor says there was more interest in a Khatami candidacy in the West than there was among many Iranians.

"I know there is definite support for him inside Iran.  But it is more exaggerated in the West.  It is kind of wishful thinking, where we just really want him to come back and kind of guide Iran in a different direction," said Bhalla.

Running as a reformist, Mohammad Khatami served two terms - from 1997 to 2005.  But the 2005 election saw the surprise ascendancy of the then little-known Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran.** 

The conservatives, or principlists as they call themselves, have little regard for Khatami and his ideas.  On the other side of Iran's political spectrum, he is the subject of deep arguments.  Some reformists remain loyal to him.  

Alex Vatanka of Jane's Defense publications says many Iranians are profoundly disillusioned at how little he was able to accomplish against an entrenched power structure during eight years in office.

"He is a guy who clearly overwhelmed the Iranian electorate, back in 1997 at least, in terms of the message he brought with him, the promises he made.  And the succeeding eight years, from '97 onward, he underwhelmed them when it came to delivery.  And I think this is still alive in a lot of peoples' imaginations," he said.

Vatanka adds that Khatami lacked self-confidence, in sharp contrast to the man who succeeded him.

"I just do not think, by the way, that Khatami has the personality for it.  This is one of the things that we have to realize.  Khatami is far less confident in himself than, say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is known for overconfidence, when really often he clearly does not have the grounding," he said.

Analyst Ken Katzman says conservative and reformist politicians believed that a Khatami candidacy had the potential to open up some still sensitive wounds. 

"There was a fear that if Khatami got in, this would create a very, very divisive election - a fight to the finish almost between reformists and conservatives.  And it would be very divisive, potentially violent, potentially very tense.  And Khatami really did not want to create that tension," said Katzman.
 
The Iranian presidential election comes at a critical time, when a new administration in Washington has indicated a willingness to engage Tehran.  

There is a belief in Washington, analysts say, that a reformist would be easier to deal with than the conservative, tough-talking President Ahmadinejad.  But they add that in the end, any decision on dialogue with the United States rests not with the president, whoever he may be, but with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

**Text corrected 24 March 2009.  Sentence removed stating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the first president of post-revolutionary Iran who was not an Islamic cleric.

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