TEHRAN (AFP) – Former president Mohammad Khatami, who embodied hopes for Iranian reform in the late 1990s, has launched a sudden comeback after retreating into the political wilderness in the last two years, analysts say.
Khatami, who had remained virtually silent over the performance of his conservative successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since leaving office in 2005, has now launched a series of bitter attacks on the president’s economic policies.
He is underpinning a moderate coalition aiming to challenge conservative dominance of parliament in March 14 legislative elections, creating speculation he could be mulling another crack at the presidency in 2009.
Khatami, president from 1997-2005, in the last month gave speeches to mass rallies in the cities of Kerman, Mashhad, Tabriz and also addressed a packed hall of students at Tehran University.
“During these trips Mr Khatami is using his popularity and mobilising people in favour of his camp for the parliament elections,” said conservative analyst Amir Mohebian.
“At the same time he is testing the ground whether he can make a comeback in the future for presidency.”
Reformist analyst Hamid Reza Jalaipour said Khatami had been compelled to take a more “active role” due to his concern about economic issues like Iran’s failure to hit growth targets, capital flight and the brain drain to the West.
Ahmadinejad’s confrontational foreign policy — refusing to give the slightest concession in the nuclear standoff and questioning the scale of the Holocaust — has also played a role, he said.
“People like Khatami and (ex-president Akbar) Hashemi Rafsanjani understand these things very well. Khatami feels that his policy of detente and confidence building has been aborted,” he said.
The bookish cleric, accused by some liberal critics of being overly cautious in office, has also boldly questioned the role of the hardline vetting body the Guardians Council in screening election candidates.
The 12-member Guardians Council is a pillar of the Iranian system which had the power to disqualify over 2,000 candidates in the last 2004 parliamentary elections.
“What right do we have to decide in the place of the electorate and prevent the candidature of people who have the confidence of the people only because six or twelve people do not approve them?” he asked at Tehran University.
“Some people should not feel they know what is best for the country on behalf of people,” he added even more bluntly in last week’s speech in Tabriz.
Khatami has also said Ahmadinejad’s chief election slogan of promoting economic justice simply serves to “spread poverty” and even accused the government of massaging statistics to soften high inflation rates.
In a weekend speech in the northern Mazandaran province he urged Iran to be “alert” in the face of international threats, a contrast to Ahmadinejad’s confidence that Iran will defeat its enemies.
Stymied by influential hardliners such as the Guardians Council which blocked many reform measures, Khatami’s presidency ended in disappointment.
The hopes of Iran’s booming young population that carried him to the landslide election victory in 1997 that shocked the world were, by his own admission, not fulfilled.
But despite the acknowledged failures of his rule, Khatami remains a charismatic and popular figure amongst many in Iran.
The warm welcome he received in the Tehran University speech was particularly symbolic as it was on the same campus in December 2004 that a visibly upset Khatami was heckled by students for failing to realize promises.
With his immaculate clerical robes, neatly trimmed beard and learned rhetoric, he presents a stark contrast to the populist Ahmadinejad.
“There is still a lot of interest in what he has to say. Although he could not fully deliver on his pledges, he did fairly well on the economy, which he did not make any promises about,” said Jalaipour.
Khatami is the inspiring force behind the moderate coalition formed for the elections grouping his allies with forces close to Rafsanjani, according to its spokesman Morteza Haji.
Mohebian said that Khatami had been claiming Iran was in a critical situation in order to mobilize voters, as a low-turn out would be catastrophic for the moderates’ election hopes.
“They (the moderates) know that the right wing has a secure number of voters and when the turnout is low they (the conservatives) will win,” he said.
“They need to mobilise the middle class if they want to win.”
Khatami’s reemergence onto the Iranian political scene seemed unlikely just months ago, when his energies appeared entirely devoted to his work as head of a centre for the “Dialogue of Civilisations”.
Whether his reemergence is aimed at being the figurehead for moderates in parliament or returning to the presidency is impossible to predict. Khatami has yet to give any public hints about his future political intentions.