Former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami declared on Sunday he would run again for president, setting the stage for a major political showdown pitting the popular reformist leader — who made dialogue with the West a centerpiece of his eight years in office — against the country’s ruling hardliners.
Khatami’s comeback candidacy poses a serious challenge to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose mixture of anti-Western rhetoric and fiery nationalism sharply contrasts Khatami’s tempered tones and appeals for global dialogue.
“I seriously announce my candidacy in the next [presidential] election,” Khatami announced on Sunday after a meeting his supporters.
He said he decided to seek the presidency in the June 12 vote because it was impossible for someone like himself, who cared about the fate of Iran, to remain silent. The 65-year-old liberal cleric said he is “attached to the country’s greatness and the people’s right to have control over their own fate.”
Khatami’s decision to run against Ahmadinejad could shake up Iran’s politics, appealing to citizens disillusioned by the country’s failing economy and Ahmadinejad’s anti-US foreign policy.
Relations between the US and Iran improved marginally during Khatami’s eight years in office, and he encouraged athletic and cultural exchanges. But it deteriorated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when former US president George W. Bush declared Iran belonged to an “axis of evil.”
Ahmadinejad widened that gap after he was elected in 2005.
But Khatami’s decision to run comes as US President Barack Obama has signaled a willingness for a dialogue with Iran, particularly over the Islamic Republic’s controversial nuclear program.
Khatami has not publicly commented on Obama’s November win, but during a 2006 visit to the US he said relations between the US and Iran should be resolved through dialogue.
In 1997, Khatami defeated hardliners who had ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a landslide presidential victory. He is credited with relaxing some of Iran’s rigid restrictions on cultural and social activities, but he left office in 2005 widely discredited among his political allies after hardline clerics stifled the bulk of his reform program.
He had been considered a long shot to return to politics after turning his attention to religious and cultural exchanges.