(RFE/RL) -- Iran's former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, has said he intends to run for the presidency again in elections set for June 12.
"Here I am announcing that I will seriously take part as a candidate for the election," the 65-year-old Khatami told a meeting of a pro-reform political group.
People at the gathering clapped when they heard his statement.
"I never had doubt. Is it possible to remain indifferent toward the revolution's fate and shy away from running in the elections?" Khatami said.
"We should pay attention to having a free and legitimate election, and also secure a high turnout," he added.Stark Choice
The race will offer a stark choice for voters between Khatami and incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose first four years in office have witnessed a sharp deterioration in ties with the West as tensions over Iran's nuclear work have mounted.
I never had doubt. Is it possible to remain indifferent toward the revolution's fate and shy away from running in the elections?
While in office from 1997 to 2005, Khatami worked for detente with the West and for political and social change at home.
But hard-liners in charge of major levers of power in Iran blocked many of his reforms, costing Khatami some key supporters.
The June poll will pit him against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who often rails against Western powers.
Moderate Iranian cleric Mehdi Karrubi has also said he'll run.
Isa Saharkhiz, a journalist in Tehran, says Khatami has his work cut out for him.
"The challenge [Khatami] faces is working in a country that operates according to a dual mechanism. One part is based on elections, while the other part is based on the appointment [of officials]," Saharkhiz told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.
"The people who support the second part are the officials who give priority to having a supreme leader [as the main decision-maker] rather than the Islamic republic, democracy, and the voting of people. This group won’t easily allow the reformists to act according to their plans," adds Saharkhiz, who was the head of the press department at the Culture Ministry during Khatami’s presidency.
But Saharkhiz says Khatami does appear to be starting his campaign with substantial popular support.
"We can say that almost all of the surveys that have been done four to five months prior to the election show that the status of Mr. Khatami is much better than that of his main rival from the conservative bloc," Saharkhiz says. "And it is almost two times more than Ahmadinejad."Surging Inflation
Since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, ties with the West have deteriorated as tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions have mounted.
Ahmadinejad has also faced mounting criticism over his economic management and surging inflation, which climbed to almost 30 percent last year. Reformists, in particular, say his fiery foreign policy speeches have further isolated Iran.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
A bid by Khatami is likely to polarize the race, in which others have already declared, and may encourage conservatives to unite to prevent a reformist winning, even though some of them have also criticized Ahmadinejad.
Reformist politician Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meibodi tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda says Khatami faces two challenges.
"There are economic problems in our country -- as well as in other parts of the world -- and people are suffering, and they expect Khatami to solve these problems," Meibodi says.
"The other problem that exists, in my opinion, is the problem of having [diplomatic] relations with the United States. If negotiations [with Washington] were to begin -- an expectation that people have of Khatami -- then it would have a positive impact from many angles. But if it did not take place, then the impact would be negative. The thing is that if Khatami decides to solve the problem with the United States, there will be problems for him in Iran; [conservatives] will not allow him to succeed."
Retain Khamenei's Support?
But analysts say the result of the vote could hinge on whether Ahmadinejad retains the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's top authority who has publicly praised the president and whose words could sway millions of loyalists.
Ahmadinejad may also be able to call on the backing of Iranians in poorer and particularly rural areas where the impact of his spending has been most obvious, analysts say, although they add that his largesse is why prices have climbed so fast.
Although many of Khatami's reforms were blocked, such as a law to ease press restrictions, the media did become more vibrant during Khatami's term -- even if many newspapers were banned -- and some social strictures did loosen.
But some of Khatami's main supporters became disillusioned with him by the end of his presidency, saying he should have done more to push through change.
Students, who were once at the vanguard of the reform movement, have now fallen largely silent.
"There has been no plan provided by the reformists," Taqi Rahmani, a political analyst in Tehran, tells RFE/RL.
"Mr. Khatami has eight years of experience [as president], and he had slogans that did not turn into reality. This time, if people want to vote for any reformist candidate, they will not pay attention to his slogans. The activists have had this experience and it is very difficult to convince them to take part in the process if no solid plan is provided for them," Rahmani says.
Iranian presidents can serve two consecutive four-year terms but must then step down. They can run again at a later date.RFE/RL's Niusha Boghrati contributed to this story, with agency reports