Khatami (at left) said he would not run in the Islamic Republic's 10th presidential elections in order to avoid any division among the reformist camp as it seeks to unseat hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Former Prime Minister Mir-Hussein Mousavi and former Speaker of the Parliament, Mehdi Karoubi, are now the candidates representing the reformists in the battle to take power from the current hardline regime when Iranians cast their votes on June 12.
Khatami, 65, served as president for two terms, from 1997 until 2005, and in both elections he gained more than 20 million votes. After announcing his candidacy last month, Khatami traveled across the country where he is a favorite among reform-minded Iranians — particularly younger ones.
"I'm pulling out of the election on the basis of a moral obligation and to avoid scattering the votes," Khatami said in a statement published late Monday.
He said he would always put the good of the reform movement ahead of his personal ambitions, but promised not to distance himself from his responsibilities and to remain a presence in Iranian politics.
Khatami praised both reformist candidates now in contention, but media and observers say he favors Mousavi, a former hardliner who is far more likely to steal votes from the ruling party than Khatami himself.
For about 20 years Mousavi, an architect and artist, kept largely out of Iran's political scene, but since his return to he has been critical about of Ahmadinejad's economic policies.
The Iranian economy has fallen on hard times over the last decade. Ahmadinejad has directed the blame squarely and wholly at sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other Western nations.
People remember Mousavi as the prime minister during the eight years of Iran-Iraq war (1981-1988). On Saturday, he gave his first public speech in southern Tehran.
In his statement, Khatami reminded Iranians that the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, always insisted on free and fair elections.
Presidential candidates must officially register their intentions between May 5 and May 10. Then, the powerful Council of Guardians (a group of religious leaders) will decide who is actually allowed to run.