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Hard-Line Tehran Mayor Wins Iranian Presidency
Victory Could Complicate Relations With West

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 25, 2005

TEHRAN, June 25 -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran who has invoked Iran's 1979 revolution and expressed doubts about rapprochement with the United States, won a runoff election Friday and was elected president of the Islamic republic in a landslide, the Interior Ministry announced early Saturday.

Ahmadinejad defeated Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former two-term president who had won the first round of voting last week and was attempting to appeal to socially moderate and reform-minded voters.

Ahmadinejad's election stands to complicate Iran's gradual engagement with the West, including difficult negotiations over the country's nuclear program. The apparent victory completes the domination of Iran's elective offices by the religious fundamentalists who have long held ultimate authority in the theocracy.

"Today is the beginning of a new political era," Ahmadinejad said as he cast his ballot in a working-class neighborhood of Tehran, the capital, where he has been mayor for two years.

In an allusion to occasions when he joined street sweepers in a show of populism, a hallmark of his presidential bid, he added: "I am proud of being the Iranian nation's little servant and street sweeper."

With 85 percent of votes counted, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, which oversees Iran's electoral process, said returns showed Ahmadinejad leading with 61.8 percent of the vote, to 35.7 for Rafsanjani. Officials said 47 percent of eligible voters turned out, down from 63 percent in the first round.

The Guardian Council is the most activist of three panels of self-appointed, mostly hard-line clerics whose authority outstrips that of any elected official in Iran. Last year, the Guardian Council used its power to bar all reformers from running for parliament.

Rafsanjani, 70, a senior statesman, Shiite cleric and business tycoon, carried the banner of the reformist movement whose leader, President Mohammad Khatami, must leave office after two consecutive terms.

Khatami's eight-year struggle against Iran's clerical hard-liners transformed the nation's political landscape but failed to produce structural change.

"The people actually did test the reformists during the last eight years, but they didn't see much from them," said Rohollah Samimi, 23, as he prepared to vote for Ahmadinejad. "So people here decided to return to the people who are promoting revolutionary values and see if they can bring about change."

[In Washington, a State Department spokeswoman, Joanne Moore, told the Associated Press that the result would not change the U.S. view of Iran.

[ "With the conclusion of the elections in Iran, we have seen nothing that sways us from our view that Iran is out of step with the rest of the region in the currents of freedom and liberty that have been so apparent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon," Moore said.]

Ahmadinejad was alone among the eight candidates in last week's first round in invoking the 1979 revolution, which swept aside a U.S.-backed monarchy in the name of egalitarian Islamic values.

A quarter-century later, Ahmadinejad's campaign has exploited widespread resentment over the growing gap between rich and poor by playing up his working-class roots and attention to the poor. He has vowed to increase aid to the needy and to young families across Iran, as he did in Tehran.

"Our first priority is social justice," Samimi said. "According to the first imam, justice means putting things in their proper place, that people can enjoy whatever wealth the country has, people can get jobs because of their ability, not because of who they know."

But reformers charged that Ahmadinejad was the genial face of a clerical class who would undo the society's uneven but gradual move from authoritarianism at home and international isolation.

Speaking before the returns were in, Rafsanjani, who vowed in the runoff campaign to "stop the domination of extremism," said that if defeated, he would use his appointive position in the government to oppose regressive moves. Rafsanjani heads the Expediency Council, an appointive body that referees disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council.

"If my rival wins, I don't think it will create problems for the country, because I will be on the scene and defend our revolution and our country," Rafsanjani said.

Ahmadinejad, a former instructor of militia groups and a commander in Iran's Revolutionary Guard, will assume the presidency and appoint a cabinet during delicate negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Talks with three European powers, which have been in hiatus during the election, are to resume this summer.

In his campaign, Ahmadinejad held to the line of most other candidates, repeating Iran's contention that it has no plans to develop nuclear weapons but has the right under the Nonproliferation Treaty to develop nuclear power.

"A weakness of Ahmadinejad is that he does not have the vaguest idea of international relations, international structures," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a professor of law and political science who has known Ahmadinejad since first grade.

Some voters said they feared Ahmadinejad would also roll back newly won personal liberties, such as mingling between the sexes and relaxed dressed codes.

"Some of my friends in the first round all voted for Ahmadinejad, but in the last week they've all changed their minds," said Mohammad Ali, 18. "They just became convinced he's extremist. What if he executed all his promises? What kind of society would we have? With Rafsanjani, nobody's going to interfere with our personal affairs."

"I'm voting for freedom, not a specific person," said Mohsen Hemati, 21, who also voted for Rafsanjani.

But Ahmadinejad's supporters said they discounted reports that he would try to roll back social freedoms in a country where two-thirds of people are younger than 30.

"He's been a basiji ," said businessman Hossein Kiyani, referring to the state-sponsored militia that enforces social codes. "But the way I see it, in the society we have today he has to bend to reality."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company