TEHRAN // Mohammed Khatami's announcement of his candidacy in June's presidential elections has livened up the political scene and is stirring up hopes of economic improvement and rapprochement with the West. Yet it is also causing worries in the Principlist camp, whose most likely candidate will be the incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "I am very excited about Mr Khatami's candidacy. With all the talk about his hesitations, we had almost lost all hope that he would stand in the race on behalf of reformists," said Naser Taghavi, 39, a civil servant.
"Mr Ahmadinejad has unfortunately not been able to deliver his election promises, as everybody admits. I think we should give Khatami another chance to implement the changes the country desperately needs now, economically and in other respects," he said. The economic policies of Mr Ahmadinejad's administration are blamed by reformists, conservatives and hardliners alike for the doubling of the annual inflation rate in less than four years despite the country's sizeable oil revenues.
"The economy was doing really well during Mr Khatami's tenure although Principlists always accused him of granting a higher place to political development than to economic matters. Even many Principlist businessmen now admit that things were much better economy-wise during his two terms in office," said Mohsen Safaie Farahani, deputy secretary general of the reformist Islamic Iranian Participation Front (Mosharekat).
Conservatives and hardliners consider themselves "Principlists" because they say they are bound by Islamic principles. Mr Ahmadinejad's critics blame him for failing to proceed with the country's economic liberalisation plans as set forth in the Twenty Year Vision Document. "Mr Ahmadinejad has now realised the need for economic liberalisation, but very belatedly," said Saeed Laylaz, a political and economic analyst and editor of Sarmayeh, a reformist newspaper.
"He doesn't believe in the science of economy so he is not making progress, but Mr Khatami has great economic discipline and he will definitely be able to introduce positive changes if he is given the chance." Mr Khatami's popularity has recently increased considerably against Mr Ahmadinejad. A recent poll conducted by the intelligence ministry, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and Azad University found Mr Khatami three times as popular as Mr Ahmadinejad in Tehran and twice as popular in other cities, Farda, the conservative news portal, which is affiliated with the Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, reported three weeks ago.
Since Aug 2005 when he was elected president, Mr Ahmadinejad has travelled to many provinces and rural areas and enjoys more popularity in rural areas than in bigger cities but 70 per cent of Iran's population live in urban places. Some Khatami supporters say his candidacy will help strengthen the position of reformists on the Iranian political chessboard even if he does not win against Mr Ahmadinejad.
"Khatami's candidacy will have serious consequences for the Principlist camp. The potency of reformists will significantly increase if Khatami wins in the elections with an overwhelming popular mandate," said Naser Afshani, 28, a student of political science. "In the quite unlikely situation of losing against Mr Ahmadinejad for any reason, or against any other candidate that Principlists choose, reformists who had lost all ground to Principlists in the previous elections can turn into a strong opposition group, no longer possible to ignore by the establishment, if Mr Khatami can attract a considerable number of votes from the electorate," he said.
Most reformists believe Mr Khatami's candidacy will polarise the presidential elections, reformists and liberals against Principlists. Mr Khatami and Mr Ahmadinejad will be the main contenders, they said, despite the nomination of another reformist, Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliament speaker and leader of the reformist National Confidence Party (Etemad Melli). To win against Mr Khatami, Mr Ahmadinejad will need the Principlist parties to unite in his support and the Principlists will also need him, analysts say.
Hamidreza Taraghi, spokesman of the conservative Islamic Coalition (Motalefeh), said his party is working towards the unification of Principlists. It is very possible that Mr Ahmadinejad will be chosen by Principlists as their sole candidate in the elections and a decision will most probably be made by mid-March, Mr Taraghi said. "Mr Ahmadinejad has a huge potential for attracting the votes of the electorate and he is superior to most other possible Principlist candidates," Mr Taraghi said.
The prospect of Mr Khatami's third term in office has stirred up hope among reformists and many in the general public who say a soft-spoken and charismatic figure like Mr Khatami can help thaw the ice in relations with the West. "Not talking and just hurling accusations against each other has not helped either us or the US in the past 30 years. Khatami seems just the right man on our side to help heal the wounds," said Afshin Salehi, 38, a telecommunications engineer.
Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science of Tehran University, said: "During his tenure he would have been accused and attacked by Principlists if he wanted, or consented, to talk to the Americans. Mr Ahmadinejad has broken that taboo by openly announcing he was ready to talk to the US president." email@example.com