Mohammad Khatami’s decision to withdraw from the upcoming Iranian presidential election, announced this past week, has shaken up the field for the June 12th poll.  The announcement was not entirely unexpected- Khatami had previously implied that he would drop from the race if another strong reformist candidate decided to run- and Khatami even went so far as to endorse another reformist, Mirhossein Mousavi, as he announced his own withdrawal.

Mousavi is relatively unknown outside of Iran but has some strong reformist credentials.  He served as Iran’s Prime Minister from 1980 to 1988 and many Iranians recall his strong leadership and economic management during the Iran-Iraq War.  These economic skills could be very appealing to Iranian voters, who are feeling the pressure of the economic crisis and who increasingly blame President Mahmood Ahmadinejahd for high levels of unemployment and inflation.

Some critics have attacked Mousavi for his lack of political experience (he hasn’t held a political office in twenty years).  Others note that it is precisely this lack of experience that makes him a stronger candidate than Khatami.  Alex Vatanka of Jane’s Defense publications argues that many Iranians became disillusioned with Khatami after his years in power produced fewer and less drastic reforms than they had hoped.  Mousavi may be able to convince those disillusioned voters that he will be more effective.

Mousavi, however, is not the only reformist  intending to challenge Ahmadinejahd in June.  Mehdi Karroubi is a moderate cleric and reformist who has been a strong ally of Khatami and who served as Speaker of the Majilis (Iranian Parliament) from 1989 to 1992.

It may appear that Mousavi and Karroubi could be gearing up for a Clinton-Obama-style struggle for reformist votes.  However some anaylsts have noted that these two candidates could help each other by difusing conservative attacks and sharing the burden of hard-line opposition.  Aboutorab Fazel suggests cooperation and coordination among the reformists will lead one candidate to drop out in order to consolidate reformist support even “just weeks before the June election”.

With two strong candidates the reformists appear to be in a strong position to keep Ahmadinjahd and other conservatives on their toes in the coming weeks.  Nevertheless, the conservatives on the Guardian Council still have many opportunities to block reformist candidates in both presidential and parliamentary elections.  As the election draws closer we will have to wait and see how Mousavi and Karroubi counter the waves of criticism and opposition that will soon be coming their way.