Is Iran Ready for Reform?

Article excerpt

Byline: Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran u Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami declared Sunday he would run again for president, setting the stage for a major political showdown in coming months between the popular reformist leader u who made dialogue with the West a centerpiece of his eight years in office u and the countryAEs ruling hard-liners.

KhatamiAEs candidacy poses a serious challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose mixture of anti-Western rhetoric and fiery nationalism sharply contrasts with KhatamiAEs tempered tones and appeals for global dialogue.

"I seriously announce my candidacy in the next (presidential) election," Khatami announced Sunday after a meeting with his supporters.

He said he decided to seek the presidency in the June 12 vote because it was impossible for someone like himself who was interested in the fate of Iran to remain silent. The 65-year-old liberal cleric said he is "attached to the countryAEs greatness and the peopleAEs right to have control over their own fate."

KhatamiAEs decision to run against Ahmadinejad could significantly shake up IranAEs politics, appealing to citizens disillusioned by the countryAEs failing economy and AhmadinejadAEs staunch anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Relations between the U.S. improved marginally during KhatamiAEs eight years in office, and he encouraged athletic and cultural exchanges. But it deteriorated after the Sept. 11 attacks when former President George W. Bush declared Iran belonged to an "axis of evil." Ahmadinejad widened that gap after he was elected in 2005.

But KhatamiAEs decision to run comes as President Barack Obama has signaled a willingness for a dialogue with Iran, particularly over the Islamic RepublicAEs controversial nuclear program.

Khatami has not publicly commented on ObamaAEs November win, but during a 2006 visit to the United States, he said relations between the U.S. and Iran should be resolved through dialogue.

In 1997, Khatami defeated hard-liners who had ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in a landslide presidential victory. He is credited with relaxing some of IranAEs rigid restrictions on cultural and social activities, including bans on music bands and on certain books and movies that previously were deemed un-Islamic. But he left office in 2005 widely discredited among his political base after hard-line 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 in recent years. But his candidacy could boost IranAEs dispirited reformists, who have not had a political heir emerge since he left office. …