Image: Mohammad Khatami
Vahid Salemi  /  AP
Iran's former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami.
updated 10/15/2008 6:45:39 PM ET 2008-10-15T22:45:39

It all seemed like the stirrings of a major political challenge to Iran's firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: schoolchildren serenaded the popular reformist leader he replaced and a hometown audience chanted Wednesday, "Our next president."

Nearby, European dignitaries praised former President Mohammad Khatami for his cooperation during his eight years in office.

But it was a show without a clear finale: Was Khatami simply accepting accolades for the past or offering hints of a political encore?

Khatami has so far remained quiet on whether he'll seek a comeback in next June's presidential election as a powerful counterpoint to Ahmadinejad, whose blend of Western defiance and fiery nationalism stands in sharp relief to Khatami's tempered tones and appeals for global dialogue.

The shape of the race is far from clear, with only one minor candidate officially in the hunt. Yet a heavyweight like Khatami could be a booster shot to Iran's dispirited reform movement — rallying young voters and others troubled by the country's unraveling economy and increasing isolation over Iran's nuclear ambitions and Ahmadinejad's venom toward Israel.

"Khatami can't avoid running. Iran is at a critical point," said former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, one of Khatami's close advisers. "It is a historic situation. He has to run even if he doesn't want it personally."

The subtext is clear: Reformers sense Ahmadinejad is vulnerable and are desperate for a unifying figure.

Out of political retirement?
No true political heir to Khatami emerged after his 1997-2005 tenure, the maximum because of a two-term limit. That means reformists are left looking backward to Khatami — even though they're angry that he left office without waging head-on battles against Iran's non-elected theocracy and its near-absolute rule. Many reformists were so disillusioned that they even shunned the elections that brought Ahmadinejad surprise victory, which was built around economic populism, Persian patriotism and a return to the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Khatami has been considered a long shot to return to politics after turning his attentions in recent years to efforts at religious and cultural exchanges between nations.

Instead, Khatami was expected to throw his support behind another reform-minded candidate — perhaps parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who was Iran's top nuclear negotiator from 2005 to 2007 but was dumped by Ahmadinejad.

Also uncertain is what role perennial power brokers such as Hashemi Rafsanjani — another former president — plan in the election. Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the final election round in 2005, is heads of an all-clerical body empowered to appoint or dismiss the country's supreme leader.

But calls have been steadily growing for Khatami to come out of political retirement.

This week offered Khatami a possible dress rehearsal: playing the role of statesman while hosting high-profile foreign leaders including former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Ireland's former president, Mary Robinson.

'Open society'
The group first attended a two-day conference on religion in Tehran, which Khatami moderated, then flew with him late Tuesday to his birthplace, Yazd, in the central arid highlands about 420 miles from Tehran.

On Wednesday, the visitors toured gardens dotted with "windcatchers" — traditional Persian tower structures used for centuries to create natural ventilation in buildings.

Prodi urged Iran "to go toward an open society" and turn toward reforms as a way of repairing ties with the West.

He did not openly criticize Ahmadinejad, who has refused to halt Iran's uranium enrichment despite three rounds of U.N. sanctions. But his comments were clearly tailored to support the less-strident policies of Khatami and his allies.

"A bright future for Iran is linked to a ... role that this country can play in world politics," Prodi told The Associated Press, adding that he had a "good feeling" during Khatami's presidency.

"There was cooperation from President Khatami," Prodi said.

Robinson, however, was more openly critical of Ahmadinejad — particularly his statements that Israel should be "wiped off the map."

"Iran's image is negative because of the statements (Ahmadinejad) made about Israel. It is a pity," said Robinson, wearing a white head scarf during the visit. "I hope Iran will re-embark on democratic reforms in the future, a program pursued when Khatami was president."

As the guests toured, children at a nearby school greeted Khatami with a song and the audience chanted: "Long live Khatami, our next president." Khatami was dressed as usual in his elegant clerical robes and turban — another obvious contrast to the simple windbreakers and department store suits favored by Ahmadinejad.

The European visitors did not meet with Ahmadinejad on their trip. Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, also in town for the religious conference portion, did meet separately with Ahmadinejad.

On the plane to Yazd, the soft-spoken Khatami strolled through the aisle, chatting individually with the visitors, including France's ex-premier Lionel Jospin and former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik.

Last month in New York, Bondevik attended a dinner hosted by Ahmadinejad during the U.N. General Assembly and expressed "deep concerns" about alleged human rights violations in Iran and said all nations must "defend Israel's right to exist."

State of economy
The months ahead are critical for Ahmadinejad to try to rebuild his political base and answer critics pointing to his unfulfilled campaign promises from nearly five ago, including spreading the wealth of Iran's oil revenue to poor provinces around the country.

But employment and inflation continue to burden the economy and Iran has been unable to bask in record-high oil profits — which are needed to cover domestic gas subsidies and leaving one of OPEC's giants in the embarrassing position of rationing the reduced-price fuel because of a lack of refinery capacity.

Ahmadinejad is also confronting questions about his uncompromising stance with the West over Iran's nuclear program, which Washington and allies believe could lead to development of nuclear arms. Iran denies the charge and says it only seeks energy-producing reactors.

In Geneva on Tuesday, the parliament speaker Larijani said Iran was willing to resume nuclear negotiations with the world powers, but denounced U.N. sanctions as the "outdated tactics of carrot and stick."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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