Iran's President-Elect Calls for Moderation

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 27, 2005

TEHRAN, June 26 -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the former militiaman and military commander who will be Iran's next president, moved to calm global concerns about his hard-line politics Sunday, vowing at a news conference to "avoid any extremism inside the government" and to pursue "a policy of moderation."

In his first extended remarks since his stunning landslide victory in the presidential runoff election Friday, Ahmadinejad told Iranian and foreign journalists that his views had been distorted by rivals in the bitter race, and that foreign policy decisions under his administration would continue to be reached by consensus.

Ahmadinejad repeated the longstanding government line on Iran's nuclear program, saying that as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty the country has the right to develop "peaceful nuclear technology."

"We need this technology for energy and medical purposes," Ahmadinejad said. "We are going to stand firm. We want this technology, and we are going to have it."

But Ahmadinejad, a foreign policy novice, made clear that talks over the future of the nuclear program would remain in the hands of the current negotiating team.

"Your conception of a president who should be a jack of all trades is wrong," Ahmadinejad told a reporter who noted his lack of diplomatic experience. "The art of a presidency is good management."

Britain, Germany and France have secured a promise from Iran that it would suspend a program to enrich uranium, a necessary step to produce nuclear power or nuclear weapons. The suspension was cast as a trust-building measure intended to reassure the rest of the world that the nuclear research Iran had kept secret for nearly two decades was not geared toward producing a bomb. Iran and the Europeans are still negotiating over the program.

The Bush administration, which, with Israel, has been most publicly skeptical of Iran's claims, has endorsed European efforts to negotiate a compromise that respects Iranian pride and entitlements while also verifying that Iran's program is peaceful.

At a separate news conference, Hamid Reza Asefi, the spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry -- still led by Mohammad Khatami, the outgoing reformist president -- sounded a similar note of continuity.

"Our detente policy will definitely continue, and I don't think our macro policies will change," said Asefi. "The nuclear talks are part of our macro policies, which we decide on by consensus. Changing the president will not change this."

Ahmadinejad, 49, is known for his loyalty to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. Khamenei is said to have hand-picked the civil engineer to be Tehran's mayor two years ago, after conservatives unexpectedly prevailed in municipal elections. At the time, Ahmadinejad had served as governor of a small province and as an officer in two hard-line military groups, the Revolutionary Guard and the basij militia.

Ahmadinejad repeated the position he often articulated during the campaign that Iran did not need to continue to pursue rapprochement with the United States. While other candidates said the restoration of diplomatic ties was key to Iran's economic development, Ahmadinejad echoed the rhetoric of the 1979 Islamic revolution, advocating self-reliance and orienting Iran away from the Western economic power.

But while Ahmadinejad said that Iran had "no significant need for the United States," he nonetheless appeared to soften his earlier position. He denied telling an Iranian news agency that he would close Tehran's stock exchange on the grounds that securities trading amounted to gambling. Instead, he urged foreign investment -- all but barred for many years after the revolution -- and suggested changes that would coax small investors into the exchange.

Ahmadinejad emphasized, however, that revenue from oil exports should be used to ease the lot of the poor. He sat before a banner reading "A cabinet of 70 million," the campaign slogan that, by referencing Iran's total population, evoked both populism and the corruption often associated with the selection of government ministers.

Ahmadinejad said that even after assuming office in August he would continue to live in the modest middle-class rowhouse that his campaign made a potent symbol of his honesty and humility.

"He's a moderate man," said Rahim Khaki, a supporter who acted as an informal spokesman during the campaign. "He's in full coordination with the leader, and has the full support of the nation."

Speaking to an American reporter as the news conference wound down, Khaki added: "He feels there are good potentials inside both Iran and the United States for a durable, stable relationship."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company