Iran’s presidential elections, due to be held on June 8, were all but decided on May 4, when president Muhammad Khatami confirmed that he would stand for re-election. Despite the political debates and struggles in Iran since his election by a massive popular vote in 1997, he remains popular and few people doubt that he will win a second term. He is now widely recognised as a figure of unity and consensus in the country, and there was no obvious alternative candidate to him had he decided not to run.
During the last four years, the debate between ‘reformers’ and ‘conservatives’ has dominated Iranian politics. Although Khatami has been widely seen as the leader and champion of the reformist camp, and the Rahbar, Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Khamenei, as the leader of the so-called conservatives, personal relations between them have remained good. This relationship has helped to limit the repercussions of the debate, despite the rhetoric and excesses of less responsible elements on both sides.
Although Western observers have tried to present the debate as being a power struggle between pro- and anti-Revolutionaries, this has never been the case. Rather than being, as suggested in the West, a struggle between ‘popular democratic modernisers’ and despotic theocratic conservatives, it has been a debate within Iran’s Islamic movement about the future of the Islamic Revolution: how best Revolutionary principles can be upheld and how Revolutionary objectives can best be achieved.
Such debate was inevitable in the post-Revolutionary period, as a new generation of young ulama and intellectuals, products of the Revolution, emerged. It was also predictable that it would take place in the harsh public light of practical politics rather than the laboratory conditions of theoretical academia, and that it would be exploited by the West to try to undermine the Revolution.
As the Islamic state looks set to demonstrate its political maturity once again, there are high hopes that a second Khatami term might lead to a stabilization of Iranian politics around a core partnership between Khatami and the Rahber.
The west meanwhile seems resigned to the failure of its campaign to undermine Iran politically. Instead the Bush administration has stepped up efforts to condemn Iran as a “terrorist” state. In the New Yorker magazine this month, FBI director Louis Freeh accused Iran of responsibility for the bombing of the Khobbar Airbase in Saudi Arabia in 1996, in which 16 US servicemen were killed. The magazine names several senior Iranian officials as being involved in the bombing, and suggests that they should be indicted for terrorism in the US.