- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

TEHRAN | Iranian authorities have blocked two Web sites promoting the presidential bid of Mohammed Khatami, reformists said Saturday, in a first sign that powerful hard-liners might seek to thwart his challenge to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election.

Mr. Khatami declared on Feb. 8 he would run again for president, setting the stage for a major political showdown in coming months between the popular reformist - who made dialogue with the West a centerpiece of his eight years as president - and the country’s ruling hard-liners.

His candidacy poses a serious threat amid popular discontent with Mr. Ahmadinejad over the sagging economy, and the action against the Web sites came as Mr. Khatami named leaders in charge of his election campaign.

The Web sites, www. yaarinews.com and www .yaari.ir, were set up last summer in anticipation of Mr. Khatami’s candidacy. They could not be accessed from inside Iran on Saturday, though they were viewable outside the country. Mr. Khatami’s own campaign site, www.khatami.ir, was still accessible.

“At midday, we learned that our Web sites have been blocked. … Closing down our Web sites means hard-liners are not going to tolerate Khatami challenging Ahmadinejad,” Behrouz Shojaei, editor of one of the sites, told the Associated Press on Saturday.

Yaari News, which Mr. Shojaei runs with other Khatami supporters, has reported on his candidacy, the reformist’s views and growing support for his presidential bid. The other targeted Web site presented people’s views on Mr. Khatami’s candidacy.

Mr. Shojaei said the government was also likely angered after the sites reported that provincial officials bused people in to attend a rally where Mr. Ahmadinejad was speaking in the city of Yazd on Wednesday.

Ahmadinejad allies claimed that the relatively large crowd showed the hard-line president’s popularity. It might also have been an attempt to strike a blow against Mr. Khatami, whose birthplace is Yazd.

Prominent Khatami ally Majid Ansari said blocking the sites was simply an attempt to increase pressure on reformists before the election.

“Reformist opponents assume they can block the path of people’s understanding, but people are wise enough to judge these actions,” Mr. Ansari said.

“Blocking sites won’t stop Khatami from challenging [Ahmadinejad],” he said.

Mr. Khatami’s candidacy poses a serious challenge to Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose mixture of anti-Western rhetoric and fiery nationalism sharply contrasts with Mr. Khatami’s tempered tones and appeals for global dialogue.

Mr. Khatami’s decision to run against Mr. Ahmadinejad could significantly shake up Iran’s politics, appealing to Iranians disillusioned by the country’s failing economy and Mr. Ahmadinejad’s staunch anti-U.S. foreign policy.

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