BEIRUT - The surprise victory of a hard-liner in Iran's presidential election Friday is likely to delay any rapprochement with the United States and could lead to a confrontation with the West over Iran's nuclear program.
In Iran, the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raised fears that he would roll back political reforms and social liberties achieved over the past eight years, when young people swept the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami into the presidency. Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, who was backed by conservative clerics and the military, has said he wants to bring the country back to the days after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
During the campaign, he said that improving relations with Washington would not be one of his priorities, unlike his opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a two-time president. Ahmadinejad also has expressed scorn for Western-style democracy. "We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy," he has said to supporters.
In his first public comments since winning Friday's runoff election, Ahmadinejad tried yesterday to strike a conciliatory tone, urging conservatives and reformers to move beyond the bitter election campaign. "Let us turn competition to friendship. We are all part of a nation and a big family," he said in a short statement broadcast on state-run radio. "My mission is to create a role model of a modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic society."
With his victory, conservatives have regained control over all of Iran's government. Last year, hard-liners won the majority in parliament after an unelected council of clerics barred most reform candidates from running.
Ahmadinejad's opponents worry that he will increase Iran's international isolation, hasten an economic decline and create new confrontations with the United States and Europe over human rights abuses and nuclear development.
Some analysts argue that a hard-line government will enable the Bush administration to challenge Iran more strongly on its nuclear program and its support for militant groups. "Iran could become even more isolated, and Europe may not be able to counter U.S. pressure," said Hamid Reza Jalaeipour, a political sociologist at Tehran University and a leading reformer.
Appointed mayor of the Iranian capital two years ago, Ahmadinejad, 49, has never held an elected office and has no experience in international diplomacy. He was formerly a commander in the Revolutionary Guard and an instructor in the basiji militia, which enforces social codes.
Iran is in the midst of delicate negotiations with three European powers over its nuclear program. Talks were suspended in the lead-up to the election and are set to resume this summer.
During the presidential campaign, Ahmadinejad criticized Iran's current negotiators as making too many concessions to Europe, especially in suspending the uranium enrichment program. Analysts expect the new president to replace some negotiators with anti-Western clerics.
Like other candidates, Ahmadinejad repeated Iran's argument that it has no plans to develop nuclear weapons but has the right to produce nuclear energy. Still, Rafsanjani was seen as more willing to make concessions on Iran's nuclear program.
In final returns announced yesterday on Iranian state television, Ahmadinejad won 61.6 percent of the vote, while Rafsanjani got 35.9 percent. About 59 percent of Iran's 47 million eligible voters cast ballots.
Ahmadinejad campaigned as a champion of the poor, a message that resonated in a country where unemployment is estimated as high as 30 percent. He vowed to increase aid to poor and young families across Iran, as he did while serving as Tehran's mayor. He also pledged to end government corruption and the excesses of the ruling elite. His campaign emphasized his roots as the son of a blacksmith, compared with Rafsanjani, a cleric and business tycoon.
The true levers of power in Iran rest with a group of clerics, especially the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Under Iran's theocratic system, the supreme leader has final say in all political and social matters. His word is regarded as infallible, and he is thought responsible only to God. This unique structure was created for Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the charismatic cleric who led the 1979 revolution.
Khamenei, who succeeded Khomeini after his death in 1989, holds a lesser clerical rank, and reformers have been bolder in questioning his authority. But Khamenei exerts influence through the 12-member Guardian Council, which answers to him. The panel has the power to veto legislation and candidates for high political office, based on loosely defined Islamic and legal grounds.
With a hard-line president such as Ahmadinejad, analysts say, the clerics will amass even more power. "Both parliament and the presidency are now in the hands of the conservatives," said Jalaeipour. "There is no more counterweight to the mullahs."
Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.