Neighbors, Not Friends: Iraq and Iran after the Gulf Wars

By Dilip Hiro | Go to book overview

10

KHATAMI, A MODERATE WITH A MISSION

Once the traditional right had adopted Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri as its presidential candidate, with the conservative Association of Combatant Clergy lining up behind him, the centrist SOC had to decide whether to name a candidate from within its own ranks or ally with leftists or conservatives. When the left's first choice, Mir Hussein Musavi, a former prime minister, failed to win a nod from the Leader's office in early 1997, its chief spokesman, Ayatollah Muhammad Musavi Khoeiniha, managing editor of the influential Salaam newspaper, approached Hojatalislam Muhammad Khatami, then head of the National Library, to run for presidency as the emerging (political) reform movement's candidate. Khatami, a mild-mannered, academically-inclined man, reportedly became angry at the thought of entering the world of power politics. Later, however, he calmed down and agreed to run. 1 His candidacy got a boost when Rafsanjani, working behind the scenes, decided to put his weight behind those preparing to challenge the traditional right, which had resisted his economic liberalization drive. So he advised the SOC to ally with the left in the presidential race. It did. Khatami also got the endorsement of the left-of-center Society of Combatant Clerics - popularly known as Majme - which in the earlier contests had backed Rafsanjani. His election campaign was masterminded by the SOC's Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, mayor of Tehran, and Khoeiniha, who turned his Salaam newspaper premises into the campaign headquarters.

The main plank of Khatami's platform was political reform, with its stress on the rule of law, respect for civil rights, greater openness in society, acceptance of political criticism, greater social justice, and reinforcement of the institutions of civil society. He also advocated administrative reform and fairer distribution of wealth. He called for greater participation in politics by young people. The driving force behind his program was the belief that a more open political environment - where the government took into account popular opinion - would reinforce the Islamic regime rather than enfeeble it. By contrast, his rival, Nateq-Nouri, stood for the status quo, seeing little need for political or cultural reform. He represented a socially conservative and internationally assertive trend in Iran.

The contest between Khatami and Nateq-Nouri was quite bitter. "Some alleged [during the campaign] that upon my assuming office, the country's

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