Rooz discussed the current political atmosphere in Iran today as it relates to the upcoming presidential elections next year and the options available to reformers with Isa Saharkhiz, a well-known and influential Iranian journalist who served in the reformist government of Mohammad Khatami. Saharkhiz believes that reformist cleric Abdollah Nouri’s run for presidency would result in “a complete rearrangement of the pieces on the chess-board” in Iranian politics. As the “bete noire” of conservatives, Abdollah Nouri is perhaps the most leading reformist cleric who has served in multiple administrations but who was eventually tried and sentenced to prison for publishing what were termed as “sacrilegious” articles. Here is the interview.
Rooz (R): What is your view on the possible return of Mr. Khatami to the presidential race (next year)?
Isa Saharkhiz (IS): The first point to note is that we talk about what is possible in politics not what is ideal. So if we look at the reformist presidential hopefuls, individuals such as Aref, Najafi, Kalamili etc, then undoubtedly Khatami stands out way above them. In addition to being the only person who can create a comprehensive consensus among the reformist and even pro-change groups such as the Liberation Front (Nehzate Azadi) or the national-religious group, Khatami can also bring other social forces such as students, women, and workers to the polling boots. Furthermore, he is among the few individuals who would be difficult to disqualify by the ruling circles (simply because he has been the president of this regime for 8 years). His participation will undoubtedly also create a clear bipolar situation in the elections which would greatly raise the chances for reformers and pro-change groups to return to power and end their current disastrous situation concerning the government.
R: But in view of the criticism that the pro-change groups had raised about his performance when he was president, would such a step be viewed as a regression?
IS: You see this was a valid issue during the last years of Mr. Khatami’s presidency, or may be even during the first years of his administration. The reality is that during the last three or four years we have lost a lot. Ten years ago had anyone asked us about these issues, we would have never thought that we could lose so much. There is no sphere that has not been heavily hit and destroyed by the ruling hardliners during the last three or four years. Just look at the (negative) position of Iran in the world and the respect and dignity (lack of it) that Iranians have in other countries. Even in the countries to the south of the Persian Gulf. Who would have thought that Iranians would be finger-printed no matter where they went, or that their eye irises would be recorded for terrorist identification purposes so that they would be the suspects in a terrorist incident? At the same time, the economic situation and people’s purchasing power has significantly declined despite the multiple-fold increase in Iran’s oil revenues and oil prices across the globe compared to the time Mr. Ahmadinejad’s administration came to office. Note that the effects of the economic sanctions have not had their full impact on people’s life and work yet. The cultural situation is too well known and does not require any verbalization. Social conditions and the levels of political freedoms including student activities, women’s rights, etc are also very clear to everyone. The reality of conditions is that when ordinary people, the elite, and the political and social activities look back and remember the complaints of the day and compare the Khatami and Ahmadinejad administrations, what comes to their mind is how they can quickly free themselves from the new rulers and the impact of their rule.
R: There has recently been some talk about the impact of the return of Abdollah Nouri as president on the reformers. Do you believe that pro-change groups will support Mr. Nouri?
IS: I do not believe that Mr. Nouri does not feel he has the readiness to return and so he does not see right conditions for challenging the ruling circles, and that he will be disqualified. As I have said before, I think he is looking to see what will happen to Khatami’s candidacy for the presidency. If he decides to run, then Nouri would not step in. On the other hand he is weighing the situation and has his eyes on the news about the events behind the scenes regarding how they will view his candidacy.
R: Under what conditions would he run for the presidency?
IS: I have heard that he has put two basic conditions for running: The first is that in the absence of Khatami, the reformists and pro-change groups will agree to his candidacy; and the second is that if his candidacy is disqualified then all these groups would openly and categorically refrain from participating in the elections. I will admit that I am among those people who think that raising these two conditions constitutes a negative diplomatic response and in a way is the continuation of the current protesting silence until better conditions emerge. I believe that if any one of these two figures announce their candidacy for the presidency, then it will be easier to build the coalition among the reformers.
I would like to say that it is important to bear in mind that these thoughts constitute only half the equation and that one must also wait and see what the other side will do, particularly the leader of the Islamic republic who through the Guardians Council may reject the candidacy of Nouri to run during the next presidential elections.