Mohamad Khatami is a long way from the ping-pong table where his claim to fame as a mid-level cleric in the 1980s was his prowess with a paddle at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Or is he?
For the past four years, Iran's charismatic president has been involved in a high-stakes political game of top-spin slams and deceptive drop shots with the conservative clerical establishment. Today, Iranians going to the polls are expected to keep the reformer in the game - battling to keep alive what is arguably the most vigorous democracy experiment in the Middle East.
It's not hard to see why Mr. Khatami appeals to this nation, where two-thirds of the population is under 30 years. He has his own website, and he speaks German, English, Arabic, and his native Farsi. Versed in Eastern and Western philosophy, he argues that Islamic and Western societies can benefit from some aspects of each other, and has called for a "dialogue among civilizations" to replace hostility and confrontation in interstate relations.
"He has real moral authority and genuine charisma," says a senior Western diplomat in Tehran. "He lights up a room when he enters it."
Even Khatami's hard-line opponents have been unable to criticize his religious and revolutionary credentials. He is a seyyed, or one who claims descent from the prophet Muhammad, and holds the rank of hojatoleslam, a title underneath an ayatollah. His father, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khatami, was one of the most respected religious figures in Iran.
President Khatami studied theology in the Shiite holy city of Qom. There, he became a disciple of Ruhollah Khomeini - who went on to become the founder of the Islamic Republic - and a friend of his son, Ahmad. He went on to study philosophy in the city of Esfahan. Khatami's younger brother is married to the granddaughter of the late Ayatollah Khomeini.
Elected to Majlis, or parliament, in 1980, Khatami became minister of culture and Islamic guidance two years later. He held the post for a decade, loosening restrictions on film, media, and entertainment censorship. He also won a reputation as one of the best ping-pong players at the ministry.
But Khatami's relatively liberal policies earned him enemies, and the Majlis forced him to resign in 1992. He then headed the national library where he soon faded from public view, but made a dramatic return to politics five years later, when the old guard made the mistake of letting him run in the presidential election. They thought he had little chance.
In 1997, Khatami swept to power with 69 percent of the popular vote, causing euphoria throughout Iran. A much freer press flowered, the arts flourished, and his allies enjoyed major electoral wins to parliament and city councils. The hope was that the hard-liners would try to win a slice of the president's popularity by working with him.
But instead, as the conservative old guard was swept out of one institution after another, it relied on its control of the unelected judiciary and security organs to launch a determined counteroffensive.
Some of Khatami's allies were removed from office, fellow reformers and scores of journalists jailed, and liberal newspapers closed down.
The hard-line backlash has given the impression to some abroad that Iran is once more on the brink of becoming just another authoritarian Middle Eastern state. Yet most analysts in Iran remain confident that time is on the side of reformers.
Every provocation by the conservative old guard has served to deepen Khatami's popularity. Khatami warned this week that his powerful opponents could only block change for a short time.
But for the reform camp, the challenge remains of keeping a disillusioned public behind the president's drive for patient, peaceful change. A US poll by Zogby International - which forecasts Khatami will get 75 percent of the vote today - also highlights voter apathy. More than 1 in 3 voters say they have only low or no interest at all in the election, apparently due to the poor economy.
But despite the popular mandate Khatami is poised to gain again, signs show he will have a hard time bringing meaningful democratic change to this nation of 65 million. Some liberal critics suggest that conservatives like to see Khatami in power (provided they can neutralize his reforms), because as a cleric himself, he gives popular legitimacy to the Islamic system. For that reason, some of the reformers argue he should not have entered the election race.
"The system will say these votes show support for the regime, for the Islamic Republic, that everything is okay," says Farizborz Raisdana, a dissident economist.
Mr. Raisdana supports peaceful change. "People should have the right to criticize the structure - not to fight against the regime - but to criticize," he says. But he believes the president, who has refused to confront his conservative opponents, should have been more assertive during his first term. "Khatami is a decent, honest man," he says. "He belongs to a famous, well-educated family. But this is not enough. If you compare the reformists to a car, Khatami knows only the brake pedal."
But his caution may be the very reason Khatami is able to stay at the helm as this country navigates change, some say.
"I know senior conservatives, clergymen, who wanted him to run again. If you go deep in their hearts, they know Khatami alone can save the country, but they won't say this openly," says Mohamad Javad Resaee, a member of the central committee of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, the biggest reform party.
A senior Western diplomat, who says Khatami "has definitely lost support" in the last year, nonetheless believes he has achieved much at home and abroad.
"He still remains extremely popular because he is seen as genuine," the envoy says.
"People are much braver and freer than four years ago. He's also made real changes in foreign policy. Iran is now a respected member of the international community."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor