The United States and its European allies are bracing for a tough new opponent in Iran with the election to the presidency of Tehran's ultra-conservative mayor, a relative unknown to the outside world whose campaign pledged to take a harder line in talks on Iran's nuclear program, according to U.S. and Western officials, as well as Iranian analysts.
The upset victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has alarmed U.S. and European officials over issues including the future of Iraq, the Middle East peace efforts and the impact on oil markets. Any prospect of ending more than a quarter of a century of tensions with Iran is also unlikely after Ahmadinejad begins his four-year term this summer, the officials said.
"This all but closes the door for a breakthrough in U.S.-Iran relations," Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said in a telephone interview from Tehran.
The election consolidates control of foreign policy in the hands of Iran's conservative supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and will weaken or eliminate the eight-year debate between reformers and conservatives over how far to go with the West, said Iranian and Western officials, as well as Iran analysts.
"The supreme leader is very suspicious of Americans, particularly the Bush administration," Sadjadpour said. He still subscribes to the position of Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who died 15 years ago, that the relationship between Washington and Tehran "is like between a wolf and a sheep," he added.
For the international community, the most urgent issue is a permanent deal to ensure that Iran cannot use its peaceful energy program to develop a nuclear weapon. The Bush administration and a European team -- Britain, France and Germany -- hoped the new government would be powerful enough to wrap up negotiations, according to U.S. officials and Western diplomats. The European-led talks with Iran had stalled, in part to await the election outcome.
The tone of the next administration was reflected in a recent law passed by a parliamentary faction aligned with Ahmadinejad -- and in defiance of a temporary deal brokered last November suspending Iran's uranium enrichment. Parliament ordered the government to resume the enrichment, a step in energy production that can be converted for use in a weapons program.
Ahmadinejad has also criticized Iranian negotiators for being weak with the West. "Nuclear energy is a result of Iranian people's scientific development," he said on Election Day. "This right of the Iranian people will soon be recognized by those who have so far denied it."
Apprehension about the future was apparent yesterday in statements from Britain and Germany. "I hope that under Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidency, Iran will take early steps to address international concerns about its nuclear program and policies towards terrorism, human rights and the Middle East peace process," British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said the Europeans expect Iran to honor the terms of the temporary deal to halt uranium enrichment.
The White House challenged the election results because more than 1,000 candidates were disqualified amid allegations of fraud. "We continue to stand with those who call for greater freedom for the Iranian people," said White House spokeswoman Maria Pia Tamburri.
Key Western governments were caught off-guard because of assumptions that former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- one of Iran's wiliest politicians and widely considered the mastermind of the 1985-86 arms-for-hostage swap with the Reagan administration -- would win the election. His campaign hinted that he would be more open to dealing with the West, a position contributing to hopes a deal could be reached this fall so the United States and its allies would not have to go to the United Nations.
Ahmadinejad, who trained as a civil engineer specializing in traffic management and who served in Iran's Revolutionary Guards, was not considered a serious contender in the election's first round, on June 17, when seven candidates competed. Rafsanjani won the most votes, but no one received more than 50 percent, so a runoff was held Friday.
The Ahmadinejad landslide is "an earthquake" for Iran's foreign policy, said Hadi Semati, a Tehran University political scientist who is now a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "The impact of this election will be felt more outside Iran than inside. Based on his statements during the campaign, he's going to be a very tough partner for negotiations."
Although Iran's supreme leader has always had the final word on policy, the new president is likely to bring in his own team to replace the seasoned diplomats who have handled foreign policy for as long as two decades, including tentative overtures for a dialogue with the West, say Iranian sources involved in politics.
"Ahmadinejad said he would follow the lead of the supreme leader on foreign policy. But his election will strengthen the voice of those in parliament and among Iran's conservatives who are opposed to a flexible posture . . . and are against a deal that would surrender Iran's right to a fuel cycle," said Shaul Bakhash, a George Mason University professor and author of "The Reign of the Ayatollahs."
The new president also reflects the hard-line positions in Tehran on two issues at the center of U.S. foreign policy: Iraq and Israel, Iranian sources and U.S. analysts said.
He appears to have a "much more serious ideological and moral opposition to Israel" than his predecessors, wrote Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on the Persian Gulf region, in an analysis yesterday for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. There is a "higher risk" of Iranian action in Iraq -- and, thus, of confrontation with the United States, he said.