TEHRAN (Reuters) -- A leading Iranian reformist has said he will run in next year's presidential election, challenging conservative President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who is widely expected to seek a second four-year term.
Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi told a news conference he would be a candidate in the June 2009 vote, Iranian news agencies reported.
Karrubi, a cleric, is the first major political figure to declare his candidacy.
"After a lot of negotiations and consultations, I announce my readiness to compete in the election," the ISNA news agency quoted him as saying.
Karrubi said earlier this year Iran should be ready for talks with its foes, particularly the United States. Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic ties for almost three decades and are locked in conflict over Iran's nuclear program.
Reformists seeking political and social change have criticized Ahmadinejad, who came to power four years ago on a pledge to revive the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, over his failure to rein in climbing double-digit inflation.
They have also questioned the president's handling of the nuclear issue, saying his fiery speeches have riled the West, which has led efforts to impose UN sanctions. They say more diplomacy would have been better.
But Ahmadinejad has won crucial backing from the Islamic republic's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of state in the world's fourth-largest oil producer.
Some analysts say Khamenei's support and the fact that Ahmadinejad is the incumbent make him the favourite to win the election, even though he has come under fire from legislators, the public, and the media over rising inflation now running at 29 percent.
Western governments accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. Iran says it wants to master nuclear technology so it can generate electricity and export more of its oil and gas.
Ahmadinejad's critics say he has helped to isolate Iran and expose it to three rounds of UN sanctions, but Khamenei has praised his uncompromising stance in the nuclear row.
Another leading reformist, former President Mohammad Khatami, has yet to say whether he will contest the presidential race.