- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TEHRAN | 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Khatami has said has a better chance of siphoning conservatives’ votes. If Mr. Khatami does drop out, Mr. 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 Mr. Khatami’s senior advisers, speaking on the 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 Mr. Khatami was expected to formally announce his decision later Monday. Mr. Khatami’s campaign Web site, www.yaarinews.ir, said Mr. Khatami was still considering his final decision.

Reformers think they have a strong chance of unseating Mr. 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.

Mr. Khatami, a liberal cleric who was president from 1997 to 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 Mr. Khatami because they think he aims to fundamentally change the nature of Iran’s Islamic state.

Mr. Mousavi, some think, is better positioned to draw conservatives who have grown disenchanted with Mr. 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 Mr. Ahmadinejad’s base.

Mr. Khatami has said previously that he and Mr. Mousavi would not compete against each other. On Sunday, he acknowledged the advantages Mr. 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 [Mr. Ahmadinejad], but they would definitely vote for Mousavi,” Mr. Khatami told supporters.

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.

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