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This is a presidential election year in Iran. In June, Iranian voters go to the polls in what almost certainly will be a referendum on the economic and foreign policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The election also could determine whether Iran sees a comeback for reformist politics and the return of a once-popular president who preceded Ahmadinejad.
NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.
MIKE SHUSTER: The outcome of this spring's presidential election in Iran is anything but certain. That's the view of many ordinary citizens in Iran and many of the analysts and activists watching the maneuvering of various candidates that is even now under way.
Mr. IBRAHIM YAZDI (Former foreign minister, Iran): There are many serious objections to the deeds of Ahmadinejad, even among the very fundamental conservatives who are backing him. Therefore, his future is a little bit shaky.
SHUSTER: Ibrahim Yazdi is a longtime reformist politician in Iran, who was Iran's foreign minister for a short period right after the 1979 Islamic revolution. And for Yazdi, like everyone in the reformist camp, the one big question is: Will former President Mohammad Khatami run again? Khatami was the popular reformer who was president from 1997 to 2005. Khatami's presidency galvanized the movement for political reform in Iran, but he was frequently stymied by the conservative clerical institutions that hold great power in Iran.
When Khatami left office four years ago, he left behind a strong feeling of disappointment and disillusion, and the reform movement has been wounded and weak since then. Now, says editor Issa Saharkhiz, four years of Ahmadinejad have convinced the highly splintered reform movement to coalesce around anyone who could defeat the conservative president.
Mr. ISSA SAHARKHIZ (Former President of Iran): Most of the people and most of the reformists are pragmatists. The best situation for Iran is putting away Mr. Ahmadinejad.
SHUSTER: Most reformers agree that the candidate who stands the best chance of doing that is former President Khatami. Khatami is seriously considering joining the race. He meets nearly every day with advisers to discuss the pros and cons. He is known to believe that Ahmadinejad's economic and foreign policies have been bad for the country. He believes Iran had more respect internationally during his administration.
It is widely believed that Khatami would pose a serious challenge to Ahmadinejad and, says Issa Saharkhiz, that has caused concern among top clerics, including Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Mr. SAHARKHIZ: There are a lot of pressure on Mr. Khatami. It's coming from the high-level person in the country, military and special groups.
SHUSTER: There is also the question of whether Khatami would even be permitted to run. The Guardian Council here, dominated by conservative jurists and religious figures, has the final say over who can run for office and has often disqualified reformist candidates.
Those who know Khatami say he believes the council wouldn't dare disqualify him. Still, the mood of the voters is hard to read. Reliable polling is not available, so there are just educated guesses, often tainted by wishful thinking. One big issue is city versus village in Iran - city voters being better educated and tending toward the liberal side - village voters more conservative.
Mohammed Atrianfar, a reform journalist, believes that the chaotic economic policies of Ahmadinejad, which have pushed inflation above 25 percent and seen unemployment grow, have cost him much support.
Mr. MOHAMMED ATRIANFAR (Reform Journalist, Iran): (Through translator) Even in the suburbs, and in the villages and in the poor areas, he had a lot of supporters. We think that he has lost a lot of them.
SHUSTER: And it's not just the reformers who see Ahmadinejad's vulnerability. Many conservatives, too, have come to be critical of the controversial Iranian president.
Iran's presidential election has two rounds. There could be as many as half a dozen or more candidates in the first round. The top two vote-getters advance to the second round. If the top two include Ahmadinejad and another conservative, Ahmadinejad will have trouble, says conservative analyst Amir Mohebian.
Mr. AMIR MOHEBIAN (Conservative Analyst, Iran): All of the persons who wants to give the votes knew Ahmadinejad, will give the votes to the rival of Mr. Ahmadinejad. And in addition, the votes of the reformists, they don't want to give the votes to Mr. Ahmadinejad. It helps to rival Mr. Ahmadinejad to be winner.
SHUSTER: So, the political dynamic in Iran is in flux and could take a dramatic and unexpected turn when Iranians go to the polls on June 12th.
Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.
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