Results in Iranian Vote Seen as Setback for Ahmadinejad

By Edmund Blair
Monday, December 18, 2006

TEHRAN, Dec 17 -- Allies of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad failed to dominate elections for a powerful Iranian clerical body and local councils, according to early results Sunday, in what analysts said was a setback to the hard-line leader's standing.

Friday's elections for the clerical Assembly of Experts and for local councils, the first nationwide vote since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005, will not directly impact policy.

But turnout of about 60 percent and Ahmadinejad's close identification with some candidates, particularly in Tehran, suggested a voter shift toward more moderate policies and away from the president's often-confrontational positions.

Although Ahmadinejad is not Iran's most powerful figure, his anti-Western and anti-Israel statements have alarmed Western leaders who fear that Iran is building a secret nuclear weapons capability.

"The results show that voters have learned from the past and concluded that we need to support . . . moderate figures," the independent daily newspaper Kargozaran said in an editorial.

Kargozaran is close to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate cleric who was leading the count in Tehran for the Assembly of Experts, according to state-run media. Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race.

Lower down the list, but still with enough votes to retain a seat, was Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a firebrand cleric who advocates cultural isolation from the West and is widely seen as the spiritual mentor of Ahmadinejad.

Two candidates, identified by clerics as allies of Mesbah-Yazdi, were out of the running in Tehran, the official IRNA news agency said. Three Mesbah-Yazdi supporters lost in other regions, though at least one was known to have secured a seat.

"This is a blow for Ahmadinejad and Mesbah-Yazdi's list," one political analyst said on condition of anonymity.

The Assembly of Experts has more power than the president or parliament because it chooses the country's supreme leader. Conservative clerics, however, have tended to keep the body out of everyday politics, and analysts say this is likely to remain the case.

The main battleground in Friday's election was the Tehran City Council, where supporters of Ahmadinejad competed against backers of a more moderate conservative, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

Final results for Tehran are not expected until Tuesday, but partial tallies reported by Iranian news agencies showed Qalibaf's group dominating with about nine of the 15 council seats. The remaining seats were split between backers of Ahmadinejad and the pro-reform camp, seeking a comeback after being routed in a series of elections.

Reformists said they had won at least six of the Tehran seats and demanded that election officials announce the results. They said the delay raised questions about the counting process.

"We have serious doubts about whether these problems are due to a lack of organization at the Interior Ministry or whether there are some efforts to tamper with votes," said Mohammad Ali Najafi, a reformist candidate in Tehran.

Analysts said the outcome could boost moderate conservatives who say Ahmadinejad is trying to centralize power among his close allies and ignoring other conservative political forces.

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