Irans Reformist Ex - President Back In Spotlight
YAZD, Iran (Reuters) - Former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami has yet to announce whether he wants to relaunch reforms by competing in a 2009 presidential race.
But months ahead of the June vote, he was back in the spotlight and displaying his enduring popularity on a visit to the province of his birth, Yazd.
People in the province"s desert capital greeted him with flowers and chants of: "Long live next president. We love you." and school children in blue uniforms sang for him as tears came into his eyes.
They called him "the wise child" of Iran"s late founder of 1979 Islamic revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Khatami embraced supporters and listened to complaints about economic hardship the townspeople have faced since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.
Several prominent Western politicians, including former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi and former Irish president Mary Robinson joined Khatami to attend a ceremony called "Yazd, the birthplace of Dialogue," organized by Khatami"s backers.
"You can rarely see such a warm welcome by people for a former president. It is astonishing," Prodi told Reuters, adding that the West preferred a more democratic Iran.
Another Western politician said the trip was reminiscent to presidential campaigning.
But Khatami, dressed in a light-gray clerical robe and black turban, insisted he had not made up his mind whether to run.
"There are many capable political figures ... Reformists will introduce the most capable candidate," he said.
Leading reformist figures are trying to persuade Khatami to challenge Ahmadinejad, widely expected to seek a second term.
They believe a fierce power struggle between Khatami and Ahmadinejad, under the mantle of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would polarize the vote.
A close aide to Khatami said the former president would want guarantees from Khamenei on his constitutional powers if he is to stand.
Without Khamenei"s full backing, Khatami had serious doubts as to what he could hope to achieve should he seek a comeback, added another ally.
Khamenei, whose powers dwarf those of the elected president, has publicly supported Ahmadinejad and his adopted policies.
Under the constitution, the president is Iran"s second-highest official after the Supreme Leader, heading the government and chairing the Supreme National Security Council.
Khatami fell out of favor with many Iranians for failing to take a firmer stand against Islamic hardliners during eight years in government.
Analysts say Khatami could have trouble mobilizing voters disappointed by the slow pace of political and social change during his two-terms in 1997 and 2001.
Ahmadinejad won the vote in 2005 on a pledge to share out Iran"s oil wealth more fairly and to revive the values of the revolution.
But he is under increasing fire at home from the public, the media, pro-reform opponents and some of his conservative supporters over his government"s failure to rein in steadily climbing inflation, officially near 30 percent.
Political analyst Hamed Mirbaghi said the economy had turned into Ahmadinejad"s Achilles heel.
"Ahmadinejad promised to improve our living conditions, but everything has become worse," said Hossein Alai, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in Yazd, where Ahmadinejad enjoyed support in 2005.
"My monthly earnings do not meet my expenses. I will not vote for him again. If Khatami runs I will vote for him."
Widow Fatemeh Hosseini, 42, selling dried fruit inside Yazd"s traditional bazaar, echoed his views.
"I am sorry I voted for Ahmadinejad. Life has become so expensive since he was elected that I had to pull my daughter out of school," she said.
Khatami"s allies say opinion polls in various cities show strong support for him. There are no independent polls in Iran and surveys are not reliable. Ahmadinejad still enjoys strong popularity in small towns and rural areas.
Analysts say Khatami"s strategy of detente in foreign relations could help Iran resolve its nuclear standoff with the West, which fears Iran is covertly trying to build bombs. Iran says its nuclear work is aimed at generating power.
Khatami was able to ease tensions with Iran"s neighbors and boost relations with European countries, projecting a gentler and more democratic image of Iran during his eight-year term.
Former vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi said Khatami could not retire from politics when the country was in need.
"We are isolated, the economy is failing and people are suffering. Khatami has a duty to stand " Abtahi said, referring to three rounds of U.N. sanctions imposed on Iran since 2006.
Antique shop owner Reza Mohammadi felt the same way. "Under Khatami we had many foreign tourists. Now we rarely have any," he said.
Published: October 16, 2008