- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

TEHRAN, IRAN (AP) - Iran’s leading reformist challenger to hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in upcoming elections vowed Tuesday to pursue democratic reforms but also stay true to the country’s Islamic values.

The comments by former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi were his first since another top reformist candidate, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, pulled out of the race late Monday in a bid to unify the forces seeking to oust Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi pledged Tuesday to follow the same Islamic values Khatami adheres to in implementing reforms.

“Like you, I believe the correct path is reforms that return to (Islamic) principles but refine them,” Mousavi said in a message to Khatami. A copy of Mousavi’s statement was made available to The Associated Press.

His remarks could reflect an effort to give reforms a more Islamic hue in an effort to bridge the gap between reformists and the hard-line clerics who rule Iran.

Hard-liners fear reformists want to eliminate Islamic rule which gives Supreme Leader Ayotallah Ali Khamenei ultimate political control and clerical bodies power over elected government.

In turn, some reformists believe the Islamic system is incompatible with real democracy.

With Khatami out of the race for the June 12 election, the former hard-liner Mousavi is seen by many as the candidate with the best chance of defeating Ahmadinejad. His revolutionary credentials are widely expected to help him draw conservatives who have grown disenchanted with Ahmadinejad and the reformist camp is regrouping to support him.

The reformists 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 faltering economy among other issues.

Khatami’s pullout also indicated there may be a debate among the reformists over the best strategy for defeating Ahmadinejad.

The soft-spoken Khatami said in announcing his pullout that he did not want to split the reformists. He also praised Mousavi, saying the younger man had the necessary qualifications to bring change to the country and defeat Ahmadinejad.

Mousavi, who announced his candidacy last week, is remembered well by many Iranians for managing the country during the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

Analyst Hedayat Aghaei said Mousavi could draw conservative votes because of his loyalty to Islamic values, and attract more youthful voters because of his commitment to democratic reforms.

Hasan Vazini, another analyst, said that “with Khatami out of the race, conservatives are not so likely anymore to support Ahmadinejad as their sole candidate.” In the weeks ahead, they may field another hard-liner.

The Islamic Iran Participation Front, Iran’s largest reformist party, said it would support Mousavi.

“To save reforms, we need to put aside differences. … We hope the people will stand behind Mousavi,” said party spokesman Hossein Kashefi.

The other reformist candidate remaining in the race, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, has not said whether he will also withdraw in Mousavi’s favor. Earlier, he has said he would not drop out regardless of who else is running.

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