The image, taken during a visit to the Italian city of Udine in May, triggered outrage among fundamentalists after being posted on conservative websites and YouTube. It showed Mr Khatami being greeted by a small group of women, none of whom wore Islamic head-covering, and appearing to shake the hand of one.
Mr Khatami, a mid-ranking cleric, dismissed the photo as a fake and insisted he had not shaken hands with any of the women who had approached him after he made a speech.
However, allies say he has been deeply wounded by the criticism, which they say has been calculated to damage his image as the reformist standard-bearer. His sensitivity has prompted some commentators to question his appetite to head the reformists’ attempt to make an electoral comeback in next year’s parliamentary election. The former president has attempted to deflect the attacks by announcing that he will not stand in the 2009 presidential election, despite his popularity among liberal-minded voters.
“That was a message to the right wing, the government and the regime saying, please don’t try to destroy me – I don’t want to disturb you any more,” said Saeed Leylaz, a pro-reformist analyst.
However, that has failed to pacify his critics. Last month, radical clerics in the holy city of Qom started a petition calling for Mr Khatami to be defrocked. The petition was launched to coincide with the eighth anniversary of the brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations by students at Tehran University in 1999, an event seen as one of Mr Khatami’s biggest setbacks.
In a letter to the Qom seminarians’ society, the clerics described another picture from Mr Khatami’s Udine visit, where he sat next to “the uncovered body of a female reporter in a very obscene way”.
Flyers condemning Mr Khatami have been circulated in the shrine city of Mashhad, while posters of him were defaced in Kashan before he spoke there.
Although Islam generally forbids handshakes between men and women who are not close family relatives, some Shia clerics say it is permitted in certain cases to avoid embarrassment. In Iran, handshakes between men and women have become more common in recent years despite the country’s Islamic laws.