YAZD, Iran — It all seemed like the stirrings of a political challenge to Iran's firebrand President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Schoolchildren serenaded the popular reformist leader he replaced and a hometown audience chanted: "Our next president."
Nearby, European dignitaries praised former President Mohammad Khatami for his cooperation during his eight years in office.
But the show this month was without a clear finale: Was Khatami simply accepting accolades for the past or offering hints of a political encore?
Khatami has so far remained quiet on whether he'll seek a comeback in June's presidential election as a powerful counterpoint to Ahmadinejad, whose blend of Western defiance and fiery nationalism stands in sharp relief to Khatami's tempered tones and appeals for global dialogue.
The shape of the race is far from clear, with only one minor candidate officially in the hunt. Yet a heavyweight like Khatami could be a boost to Iran's dispirited reform movement — rallying young voters and others troubled by the country's unraveling economy and increasing isolation over Iran's nuclear ambitions and Ahmadinejad's venom toward Israel.
"Khatami can't avoid running. Iran is at a critical point," said former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. "It is a historic situation. He has to run even if he doesn't want it personally."
No true political heir to Khatami emerged after his 1997-2005 tenure, the maximum because of a two-term limit. That means reformists are left looking backward to Khatami even though he left office widely discredited among his political base — angry at Khatami for not waging head-on battles against Iran's nonelected theocracy and its near-absolute rule.
Many reformists were so disillusioned that they even shunned the elections that brought Ahmadinejad surprise victory, which was built around economic populism, Persian patriotism and a return to the values of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Khatami has been considered a long shot to return to politics after turning his attentions recently to efforts at religious and cultural exchanges between nations.
Instead, Khatami was expected to throw his support behind another reform-minded candidate — perhaps Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who was Iran's top nuclear negotiator from 2005-2007.
Also uncertain is what role power brokers such as Hashemi Rafsanjani — another former president — plan in the election. Rafsanjani, who lost to Ahmadinejad in the final election round in 2005, heads an all-clerical body empowered to appoint or dismiss the country's supreme leader.
But calls have been steadily growing for Khatami to come out of political retirement.
Last week offered Khatami a possible dress rehearsal: playing the role of statesman while hosting foreign leaders including former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Ireland's former president, Mary Robinson.
The group first attended a two-day conference on religion in Tehran, which Khatami moderated, then flew with him late Tuesday to his birthplace, Yazd, in the central highlands about 420 miles from Tehran.