The battered reformist movement was energized with hopes of a political comeback Monday after their most powerful advocate, Mohammad Khatami, entered the race for president, a match up one liberal Web site predicted would be "an Armageddon between reformists and hard-liners."
Khatami, who was president from 1997-2005 and previously expressed reluctance to run again, is seen by many reformists as their white knight, the only candidate with a real chance of beating hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Supporters see the cleric, whose calls for better ties with the West provides a stark contrast to Ahmadinejad's tough rhetoric, as warming U.S.-Iranian ties, even opening a dialogue with Barack Obama.
Khatami faces tough campaign
But Khatami, who announced his candidacy Sunday, faces a tough campaign. Reformists are divided, and the ruling religious establishment backs the current president.
Ahmadinejad is believed to be vulnerable in the June elections because of public anger over issues including fuel shortages, inflation and his confrontational stances toward the West. But few saw any candidate with the stature to defeat him.
A match-up between him and Khatami, however, transforms the race into a real competition. One reformist Web site, Asr-e Iran, said Khatami's entrance could "polarize" the campaign and turn it into "an Armageddon between reformists and hard-liners."
Supporters believe the charismatic Khatami can turn around the disillusionment that has dragged down the movement for years. In recent years, many pro-reform voters have stayed away from the polls because of hard-liners' powers to bar their candidates from running.
In their heyday in the late 1990s, reformists swept to power, seizing the presidency and parliament. They promised better relations with the West and the easing of the Islamic republic's tight social and political restrictions, and the young and women turned out in droves to hand them electoral landslides.
Reform movement crushed
But even before Khatami's two terms ended, the movement was largely crushed by ruling hard-line clerics, who stand above elected posts like the presidency and parliament. Reformists were able to loosen some strictures on women's dress, but hard-liners thwarted deeper political change.
Clerical bodies controlled by hard-liners have the power under Iranian law to throw out laws passed by parliament and bar election candidates seen as not suitable for the country's Islamic revolution.
Those powers later cost reformists control of parliament after many of their lawmakers were barred from running for re-election. Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, when term limits removed Khatami from the race. The law allows Khatami to run again, and he is considered too prominent for clerical bodies to bar his candidature.
"Khatami is a famous figure. All the people know him, and they know about the results of Ahmadinejad's administration," said one of Khatami's close allies, Mostafa Tajzadeh, suggesting reasons the former president will win.
Responding to Obama's overtures
Some supporters see Khatami as more likely to respond to the new American president's attempts to repair the bitter U.S.-Iran rivalry. Obama has said he wants to open a dialogue with Iran over its controversial nuclear program and other disputes.
"These two are able to make better relations. Both of them are men of dialogue," said Shahnaz Mahboubi, a 32-year-old nurse in Tehran.
Younis Shojai, a retired government worker, said he would vote for Khatami. "He may be our last chance to end 30 years of hostility between Iran and the United States. Both sides should forget the past to achieve that."
Ahmadinejad's press adviser confirmed last week that the hard-line president will seek re-election, although Ahmadinejad has not made a formal announcement.
He has faced criticism even from many conservatives over his handling of the economy and his harsh anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. rhetoric, which even some former allies say have worsened Iran's isolation. And he may face a challenge from within the conservative movement, possibly by powerful politician Ali Larijani.
But Ahmadinejad has support from hard-liners and, most importantly, from Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate political authority. Khamenei has praised the president for standing up to the West and restoring "Islamic values" in Iran, and urged him to run for re-election.
Moreover, Ahmadinejad has populist appeal. His government has handed out millions in direct support to the poor, despite criticism that the spending has undermined the economy.
Khatami has a patrician style in his clean, well-pressed clerical robes and a warm, smiling demeanor, but some see him as part of a distant elite. Ahmadinejad has a more down to earth, man-of-the-people look. Often wearing informal windbreakers, Ahmadinejad makes frequent tours of the provinces to keep in touch with the public. And while seen as fearsome in the West, Ahmadinejad delivers even his toughest rhetoric with a soft, smiling manner.
Conservative political analyst Emad Afrough said Khatami's candidacy transforms the race, but will also energize hard-liners. "It will motivate many people to come to the polls, while also making his opponents more active," he said.
The pro-hard-line newspaper Keyhan said a Khatami victory was far from assured, pointing to doubts over his popular support.
Also, this is no longer the Iran of the 1990s, when the young were charged up with optimism for reform. Now many criticize Khatami, saying he was too weak and failed to stand up to hard-liners while president.
Reza Shokri, once a pro-reform student in early 2000s, said he has little hope in Khatami now, "since he easily pulled back from his positions on improving freedoms during his time in office, when he had millions of votes."
Another former supporter to Khatami, Borzou Razeqi, said, "Khatami once said a president has no power in Iran. I don't understand why he decided to run for a useless position again."
The reformist vote could be divided among several candidates. Moderate cleric Mehdi Karrubi, 71, has said he will run, though he is considered a long shot. Also reported to be preparing to run is Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former hard-liner turned reformist.
A close Khatami ally, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, wrote in his personal Web site that a Khatami victory should "not be very hard — young people, who are thinking about a better future, would guarantee victory."
But he warned that if reformists fail to unify and miss the opportunty, "they will have no answer before history and Iran's future."