Abdollah Nouri's supporters describe him as man of principle who is willing to defend his beliefs.
These qualities, they say, make Nouri the only reformist figure who can bring real change to Iran. And by real changes, they mean changes to Iran's Islamic political structure, where the real power lies in the hands of the supreme leader.
While former President Mohammad Khatami is the main reformist candidate in Iran's June elections, some democracy activists would like to see Nouri, a former Interior Minister and publisher, as their candidate. Khatami's reforms were temporary and failed to turn Iran into a democratic country, they say.
For many in Iran, Nouri -- who in 1999 was charged with using his newspaper to undermine the state and sentenced to five years in prison -- is a symbol of resistance against the conservative establishment.
"He can be, as he has said it himself, a key element in changing the constitution," human-rights activist Hassan Asadi Zeidabadi told RFE/RL in a recent interview.
Asadi -- a leader of the alumni organization of Iran's largest reformist student groups, Advar Daftar Tahkim Vahdat (Office To Foster Unity) -- says Nouri has demonstrated through his actions that he is committed to citizens' rights.
"He is popular in civil society and among intellectuals and reformist politicians, and he has been part of the Islamic establishment since the beginning of the revolution," Asadi says.
But even advocates like Asadi realize there is little chance the outspoken Nouri could become the Islamic republic's 10th president.
First and foremost, it is unlikely he would even try to run for the office, considering that fellow reformist Khatami recently announced his candidacy.
And even if he were to enter the contest, his candidacy would likely be disqualified by the hard-line Guardians Council, which screens and approves all candidates. The oversight body has a record of rejecting liberals and others deemed a threat to the establishment.
The 'Imprisoned Sheikh Of Reform'
Nouri's history as an opponent of the conservatives would be reason alone for his disqualification. While serving as interior minister under former President Khatami, he was impeached by conservatives for his defense of civil liberties. He was later jailed on charges that he had undermined the establishment through his newspaper, "Khordad."
He used his 1999 trial before the Special Court For Clergy as a forum for questioning some key principles of the Islamic republic. He challenged the legitimacy of the court, the authority of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, and questioned Iran's Middle East policies. He also accused Iranian officials of being behind the murder of intellectuals.
Regarding the assassinations of opposition figure Dariush Forouhar and his wife Parvaneh Forouhar, Nouri famously asked the court: "How come in the Islamic establishment, an elderly lady can be slaughtered with more than 25 knife strokes, but when a newspaper covers this issue, it creates insecurity?"
His defense statements were published in a book that became a bestseller.
The clergy court accused Nouri of publishing "anti-Islamic" articles, insulting government officials, giving publicity to senior dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, and promoting friendly relations with the United States. Nouri reportedly refused to ask for forgiveness and was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released early in 2002 following the death of his brother.
During his time in prison, Nouri was referred to as the "imprisoned sheikh of reform." After his release, he remained silent and became the "silent sheikh of reform."
A Message To Khatami
But a few months ago, answering calls by the student group Advar Daftar Tahkim Vahdat (Office To Foster Unity), he broke his silence and signaled he might be ready to run for president.
"He clearly said his response to demands that he run could be positive," Asadi said. "He had been silent, but following the demand by Advar he took a stance. In one of his last public appearances, he spoke about his program, emphasizing structural changes and reforming the constitution."
Some of Nouri's backers in the past supported Khatami, but many among them believe the former president failed to fulfill his promises of bringing freedom and democracy to Iran. They say Khatami backed down from his principles and failed to defend fellow reformists like Nouri.
Mehrdad Mashayekhi is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and the author of a book titled "Toward Democracy, A Secular Republic In Iran," says the emerging support for Nouri could a be a signal for Khatami.
"It seems that the only lesson [Khatami] has learned from his previous two terms is to show more leniency toward the hard-liners," Mashayekhi says.
"The presence of another figure in the reformist faction who has more radical views and values democracy more [than Khatami does] could influence a segment of society and bring its attention to [democratic] values. And secondly, it could create some competition for Khatami and force him to remain committed to certain values."
Asadi tells RFE/RL that support for Nouri's candidacy can be viewed as a call for reformists to "reform the reforms." He says it appears that pragmatic reformists seek what he describes as a "change of management" in the country.
"If there was a possibility for Nouri to run as the candidate supported by all reformist groups, then -- because of his past record, his defense of people's rights, and his outspokenness -- he would bring up taboo issues, attract the attention of public opinion, and impose [structural reforms] on the leadership," Asadi says.
Other observers, however, say such a forecast is overly optimistic.
"If Iran's leadership -- in particular, the supreme leader -- is against a matter, even if an election candidate becomes the president given the some 20 percent weight that the executive body has, I doubt structural and real reforms would be achievable," Mashayekhi says.
Some of Nouri's supporters say it's not essential whether he makes a presidential run or not. What is key, they say, is beginning a discourse about the need for real reforms in Iranian society and mobilizing freedom-seeking forces.
Copyright (c) 2008. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.