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TEHRAN, Iran – It's difficult to measure how much lifeblood is left in Iran's pro-reform factions after four years of punishment. Its leaders are incommunicado under house arrest. Street protests after a hotly disputed presidential election are just a memory, and the public mood is far more preoccupied these days about the country's sanctions-stifled economy.
A website offers clues about the opposition's desperation heading toward presidential elections in June to pick a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"It's the time of sunset. I like the dawn," says a message greeting visitors to an online petition urging former President Mohammad Khatami to run again. About 16,700 had registered as of Monday.
That's hardly a groundswell in a nation with 45 million potential voters.
The modest numbers reveal much about the beleaguered state of Iran's reform movements — a loosely stitched patchwork of groups ranging from hardcore activists dreaming of one day bringing down the theocracy to liberals pushing for more social freedoms and tiring of Iran's nonstop confrontations with the West.
Khatami briefly joined the presidential race four years ago before throwing support behind Green Movement leader Hossein Mir Mousavi, whose defeat by Ahmadinejad brought charges of voting rigging and touched off the worst domestic unrest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Mousavi and the other main opposition leader, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for more than two years, and the protest movement has all but disappeared.
Many reformists are expected to sit out the June 14 voting in a silent protest over the crackdowns that have left them leaderless and demoralized. Others unwilling to boycott the election are rallying around a last-ditch call for help to Khatami, who is seen increasingly as their only credible hope at the ballot box.
Yet it's still a longshot on several fronts.
Khatami, 69, has given no indication he is ready to join the race. Even if he did, there's no certainty the ruling clerics would clear him to run, possibly fearful of his pro-reform popularity even eight years after he left office.
This leaves Iran's liberal-leaning voters clinging to the margins, while conservative candidates pile into the race — suggesting the outcome could give the ruling clerics what they seek: A pliant and cooperative president after years of messy power struggles with Ahmadinejad.
While bad for change-seekers in Iran, such a result could help calm the internal political atmosphere with further international negotiations expected over Tehran's nuclear program. While some experts worry that more harmony between Iran's two political centers of powers — the ruling clerics and the presidency — could give Iranian leaders more confidence to confront the West, others say it might spur them to consider nuclear concessions in exchange for Western overtures such as easing sanctions, some analysts say.
"It's no secret that this election, from the Iranian leadership's point of view, is about ending up with a new president who won't rock the boat," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle East Studies program at Syracuse University. "Reformists know this. Khatami knows this. This is not 2009."
Even some of Khatami's former supporters are questioning whether the country can handle more political discord when it's facing critical problems such as plunge in the value of its currency and growing Western pressures over its nuclear ambitions.
"Why should I vote for Khatami again?" said Reza Khorshidi, a 45-year-old mechanic engineer. "He could not deliver his promises on establishing freedoms. Let's vote for someone who has already full support by the establishment."
Khatami has left only guesswork about whether he would heed calls to join the race with less than a month left to register. After that, the ruling cleric's Guardian Council, which vets all candidates, is expected to announce the final ballot list with probably no more than five or six names.
Conservative media and websites have constantly pushed the idea that Khatami will stay out. But some political watchers view it as attempt to get answers.
"They want to test the waters and see what will be Khatami's reaction," said Tehran-based political analyst and writer Behrouz Shojaei. "Conservatives are seriously worried that Khatami can change the election map should he enter the race."
Khatami has not been directly targeted in the post-2009 crackdowns.
He kept a cautious distance from the street protests. Even Iran's hard-liners were wary of the potential backlash from targeting Khatami, who is still widely admired among reformers for his 1997-2005 terms that softened Iran's approach to the West, temporarily weakened the clout of Islamic morality enforcers and gave space for greater political openness.
This time there are very different stakes. During the Khatami years, Iran and the West were mostly engaged with issues over monitoring Tehran's nuclear program. Tensions are now far higher with Western claims that Iran could be considering development of nuclear arms, a charge Iran denies. Iran's president has only limited sway over nuclear policies or negotiations with the West, but Ahmadinejad's successor will be a chief conduit for messages from the ruling clerics in possible further talks with world powers.
Khatami's early post-presidency years were occupied with low-wattage efforts such as cultural dialogue between nations. Recently he has drifted even farther from the public eye, rarely making statements and only occasionally weighing into politics, such as calls to release more prisoners from the 2009 clampdowns.
Without Khatami, there is little else to bolster the battered reformists.
Mohammad Reza Aref, first vice-president during Khatami's presidency, has said he would run, but he has promised to step aside if Khatami makes a comeback bid.
A dark-horse candidate also is in the mix: Mostafa Kavakebian, leader of the little-known Mardomsalary Party, who boldly — and naively — claims he could get U.S. sanctions lifted within six months and restore diplomatic ties with Washington within a year. What he doesn't mention is that the Iranian president has almost no policymaking powers. All those are in the hands of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his inner circle.
Another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may have ruled himself out by comments in 2009 criticizing the arrests and violence against protesters. He was allowed to keep a post within the ruling theocracy, but he was effectively stripped of his influential spot as a Friday prayers leader at Tehran University.
Hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a close ally of Khamenei, said any "seditionists who challenged the ruling system" are blocked from the presidency.
It's doubtful that would apply to Khatami or Rafsanjani, but neither may want to risk the embarrassment of being questioned on their views or disqualified by the Guardian Council.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. AP writer Nasser Karimi contributed to this report.