- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - Iran’s most prominent reformist, former President Mohammed Khatami, has decided to pull out of the race against the country’s hard-line president to avoid splitting the pro-reform vote in upcoming elections, a senior adviser said Monday.

Khatami’s entry into the race against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a month ago boosted the hopes of some among the reformists, who favor improving ties with the West and liberalizing Iran’s conservative Islamic government.

But two other prominent reformists have also entered the race for the June 12 election. One of them, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, is a former hard-liner who Khatami has said has a better chance of siphoning conservatives’ votes. If Khatami does drop out, Mousavi would become the leading reformist candidate.

“It is certain that he is pulling out of the race, but he has not made his decision public yet,” said one of Khatami’s senior advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Another close Khatami ally, former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, said on his Web site that Khatami was expected to formally announce his decision later Monday.

Khatami’s campaign Web site, http://www.yaarinews.ir, said Khatami was still considering his final decision.

The other reformist candidate in the race, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, has repeatedly said he won’t drop out regardless of who else is running, but his party was meeting Monday to assess the situation.

Reformers believe they have a strong chance of unseating Ahmadinejad, who came to power in 2005 but has lost popularity because of his handling of the country’s faltering economy and other issues. But the maneuvers in the reformist camp reflect a debate over the best strategy for defeating the hard-liner.

Khatami, a liberal cleric who was president in 1997-2005, is the best known internationally among Iran’s reformist politicians and is also popular at home, particularly among the young. But some reformists have worried that his candidacy will galvanize the hard-line camp, which strongly dislikes Khatami because they believe he aims to fundamentally change the nature of Iran’s Islamic state.

Mousavi, some believe, is better positioned to draw conservatives who have grown disenchanted with Ahmadinejad. The former prime minister, who announced his candidacy last week, is remembered well by many Iranians for managing the country during the 1980-88 war with Iraq, and has strong enough revolutionary credentials to appeal to Ahmadinejad’s base.

Khatami has said previously that he and Mousavi would not compete against each other. On Sunday he acknowledged the advantages Mousavi holds in the race.

“Rest assured that Mousavi will recruit a remarkable percentage of votes from the other side. I have reports that some conservatives will not vote for me or (Ahmadinejad), but they would definitely vote for Mousavi,” Khatami told supporters.

But, on the other end of the spectrum, Mousavi could dampen enthusiasm among the reformists, whose electoral landslides in the late 1990s depended on massive turnout among the youth, excited at the prospect of change.

“This is a major setback for the reformist camp as a whole. Mousavi is not likely to bring back young Iranians who have been on the political sidelines,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political and religious researcher and Iran specialist at New York’s Syracuse University.

“Mousavi doesn’t speak the reformers’ language. He might try to soften his message to appeal to them, but he still echoes the past to many people,” he said.

Prominent political analyst, Saeed Leilaz, said Mousavi is the stronger candidate because he “can liquidate Ahmadinejad’s support base,” while Khatami “unifies hard-liners.” But, he added, Mousavi won’t be able to pull in the votes of all Khatami backers.

The election is vital for reformists because they have spent much of the past years in decline. While Khatami was still in office, hard-liners blocked many of his reforms through cleric-led bodies that have powers over the government under Iran’s Islamic system. Those same bodies broke reformists’ hold on parliament by using their powers to prevent reformist lawmakers from running for re-election. By the 2005 election _ in which Khatami could not run because of term limits _ the reformists were in disarray and largely eclipsed.

Abtahi, the former reformist vice president, said Khatami’s withdrawal is aimed at reaching a united front, and he warned that competition among reformists would pave the way for a second Ahmadinejad term.

“We lost the previous election (2005) because of multiple candidates. And Iran has suffered so much” as a result, he said. “This is a historic opportunity that must not be lost.”

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