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Former Iranian President Hosts Prominent Western Figures

Mohammad Khatami addressing the conference in Tehran

Mohammad Khatami addressing the conference in Tehran

TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran's moderate former President Mohammad Khatami has hosted several former Western leaders, a move analysts see as a bid to boost his standing ahead of the country's presidential election in 2009.

Among the guests at a conference called "Religion in the Modern World" were former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, and former Presidents Mary Robinson of Ireland and Jorge Sampaio of Portugal.

Analysts said the level of participants underlined Khatami's continued popularity in the West, which has increasingly isolated Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

"No such internationally recognized ranking figures have visited Iran since [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad was elected," said political analyst Said Leylaz.

"The guest list shows Khatami is more popular than Ahmadinejad among Western politicians."

Khatami, who won landslide presidential votes in 1997 and 2001, has not said whether he will challenge Ahmadinejad, who is widely expected to seek a second four-year term. A close aide to Khatami said he would announce his candidacy in February.

Many politicians and analysts see Khatami as the only potential challenger strong enough to "save the country from economic and political threats."

"If Ahmadinejad wins the election, Iran will become a negative lesson for the region, whereas if Khatami is elected, Iran will become a regional model," leading pro-reform politician Mostafa Tajzadeh told reporters on the sidelines of the conference.

Declining Popularity

Ahmadinejad won the 2005 vote on a pledge to share out Iran's oil wealth more fairly and to revive the values of the revolution almost three decades ago, but analysts say his popularity is declining because of a failure to curb inflation.

He has proved a polarizing figure in Iranian politics, with many critics saying his hard-line foreign policy, including on the nuclear issue, has further isolated Iran.

The West accuses Tehran of seeking to build nuclear weapons despite Iran's denials. Iran's failure to convince world powers of its peaceful aims has led to three rounds of UN sanctions.

However, the president enjoys public support from Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik criticized Ahmadinejad's remarks over Israel and also said religious minorities, whom the West says are being discriminated against in Iran, should have the same legal rights as Muslims.

"Remarks like...wiping out a country from the world map could add fuel to the fire of religious tensions," Bondevik told the conference.

Ahmadinejad caused widespread outrage for saying in 2005 that the state of Israel should be wiped off the map. Ahmadinejad insists Iran is not a threat to anyone, even Israel, but has said it would strike back if attacked.

The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to end the row over its nuclear work.