TEHRAN, Iran — An influential former Iranian prime minister said Tuesday that he will run in the upcoming presidential election, posing what could be a serious pro-reform challenge to the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, who announced his intention to run in a statement given to The Associated Press, is well remembered by many Iranians for managing the country during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. His revolutionary credentials also could help him siphon votes away from Ahmadinejad's base.
Iran's reformers, who favor improving ties with the West and loosening restrictions at home, see a strong opportunity to unseat Ahmadinejad. The president has lost popularity even among some conservatives because of his handling of the faltering economy, and some Iranians believe his tough anti-U.S. and anti-Israel rhetoric has worsened Iran's isolation in the world.
But the reformists must also unify their ranks. Besides Mousavi, there are two other strong pro-reform candidates in the race: former President Mohammad Khatami and former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi.
Khatami has said in the past that he and Mousavi will not compete against each other, an indication that one of them could leave the race.
But Karroubi could complicate matters. He has repeatedly said he won't drop out regardless of who else is running. Karroubi gained more attention last week when Gholamhossein Karbaschi, a former Tehran mayor who was once a Khatami supporter, signed on as his campaign manager.
Still, reformist politicians and analysts say the reform bloc is fielding several strong candidates in the initial stages of the campaign to diffuse attacks by hard-liners, but will reduce the number to one shortly before the election to concentrate support.
"It is likely that reformist candidates will get out of the race in favor of one, but this may happen just weeks before the June election," political analyst Aboutorab Fazel said.
Khatami, a liberal cleric who was president in 1997-2005, is the best known internationally among Iran's reformist politicians and is also popular at home, particularly among the young. But he is strongly disliked by hard-liners, who accuse him of aiming to change the nature of Iran's Islamic state. He denies that charge _ but if he is the sole reform candidate, it could energize hard-liners to rally behind Ahmadinejad.
Little known abroad, Mousavi has appeal on both sides of Iran's political fence, since he is respected for his leadership during the Iran-Iraq war. He is viewed by many hard-liners as someone who has reformist tendencies but wants to work within the framework of Iran's clerical rule.
Mousavi has refused to run in previous elections but said Tuesday that he feels the country needs him now.
"The same reasons and factors that made me avoid running in previous elections have convinced me that this time is different and that I need to run," he said, without elaborating.
A key factor will be the attitude of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate political power. He has shown unusually strong public support for Ahmadinejad's re-election in recent months.
Mousavi was prime minister when Khamenei was president, but the two were at odds over who had more authority. The constitution was eventually amended to abolish the position of prime minister, leaving Iran with its current system of a powerful president.
Ahmadinejad has said he is running for re-election, but it is unclear if other hard-liners might join the race. The president has been criticized by many conservatives and reformists for his mismanagement of the economy and his belligerent tone with the West over the country's controversial nuclear program.
Ahmadinejad suffered a defeat Monday when fellow conservatives rejected his proposed economic package that calls for scrapping costly state subsidies for fuel, water and electricity and raising taxes to make up for the steep slide in world oil prices.
"It was a no-confidence vote in the person of Ahmadinejad by fellow conservatives just less than three months before the election," prominent analyst Saeed Leilaz said.