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RFE/RL’s Golnaz Esfandiari Interviewed by CNN

The analysis of RFE/RL’s Golnaz Esfandiari was featured in a recent blog item by “Anderson Cooper 360” co-producer Alexandra Poolos. Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has announced his intentions to challenge controversial incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Iranian Presidential elections scheduled for June of this year. Esfandiari offered her take on the former President’s candidacy.

An excerpt of the article is reprinted below. The full post is available here.

A Familiar Face in Iran

By Alexandra Poolos | CNN

It’s unclear whether the Guardian Council will block Khatami’s candidacy as they did dozens of other reformist parliamentary candidates in elections last year. But some say that Khatami is too prominent a figure. “He was the president for two terms, so it would be a huge embarrassment for the regime if they blocked him,” Golnaz Esfandiari, a senior correspondent at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who covers Iran, said. “That’s exactly why the reformers asked him to run. They believe he is the only person who can prevent an Ahmadinejad election.”

Still, after eight years as president from 1997-2005, Khatami knows the intense challenges of the office. Stymied by the hard-line clerics, Khatami accomplished little of his reformist agenda. He witnessed the closure of many pro-democracy publications, the jailing of activists and the elimination of reformist allies from parliament. Worse, many who had voted for him grew disillusioned with his rule, saying he did not stand up to the Guardian Council. Some analysts have said that their disillusionment, which led many to boycott the 2005 elections, contributed to Ahmadinejad’s surprise win.

But Esfandiari says that Khatami feels it is his duty to run for office again. “When his term ended he told reporters he had lots of bitter memories,” she said. “He said he had to face a crisis every nine days. He sees his decision [to run again] as a self-sacrifice. This is the view he has that he has to do this for Iran and for the Islamic establishment. Many people believe Ahmadinejad is damaging the country. The economy is in very poor shape, and there is concern that Iran is going to face even tougher sanctions.”

Even if Khatami can rally the votes to win in June, his presidency will be an uphill battle. The office of the president is a largely symbolic office in Iran, where unelected bodies and the Supreme Leader hold the real power.

But his election and the support he may receive will show whether Iranians are hungry for real change, or at least a return to how things were when he last held office. “A lot will depend on what kind of programs Khatami will have,” Esfandiari said. “Many see him as the only chance for better ties with the U.S. There is this change in tone from Washington, and many see this as a golden opportunity for Iran. And many see Khatami as the only one who could take advantage of that.”