Iran's new hard-liner maps path

President-elect Ahmadinejad insists that Iran will not give up its nuclear program.

Representing the patchwork of divisive factions that swept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to victory, bearded ideologues and black-shrouded women mixed with Westernized youths at Mr. Ahmadinejad's working-class home this weekend.

The hard-line president-elect, who lacks any international experience, swept to victory over front-runner and regime stalwart Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in a second-round vote last Friday. [Editor's note: The original version had Rafsanjani's names in the wrong order.]

The ultraconservative leader has vowed to spread Iran's oil money to the poor, end corruption, return to the roots of the 1979 Islamic revolution - and push Iran's nuclear-energy plans, which the US believes are a mask for a weapons program.

Critics charge that Ahmadinejad will take Iran back into a Talibanesque dark age, reverse eight years of loosening social rules, and accelerate a collision with the US and the West over nuclear policy and terrorism.

"The EU should not talk to us from a proud distance and should come down from the ivory tower," Ahmadinejad said Sunday, when asked at his first full-scale press conference about a possible European freeze of nuclear talks over human rights issues. "The Iranian nation is a great, alert nation, and will protect its [nuclear] right seriously," he said.

Despite unease abroad, Ahmadinejad's supporters, who lavished him a 61.6 percent popular mandate, compared with Mr. Rafsanjani's lackluster 35.9 percent of the vote, say he is a working-class hero who alone can connect with ordinary people, and hack away at Iran's chronic economic problems.

Groups of motorcyclists - normally used by shadowy right-wing militias to intimidate - Sunday handed out flowers to Westernized youths in affluent north Tehran in an apparent bid to reassure them that a crackdown is not on the cards. Many such youth voted for Rafsanjani, fearing the results of hard-line control over every political lever in Iran.

The stakes are high, as Iran enters a new phase of nuclear talks with European negotiators in July. And analysts say that Ahmadinejad may have to temper his hard-line image. "We need to show the rational face in Iran ... because extremism can only hurt this country," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper.

He says this could be a job for Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, regarding hard-line militants close to Ahmadinejad such as the religious basiji militia and Ansar-e-Hizbollah militants.

"Years ago the supreme leader was the brakes for liberals," says Mr. Mohebian. "But maybe this time he leader should be the brakes for the Hizbollahi."

The result could be a combined "iron fist and rational mind," adds Mohebian, such that: "If you want to talk to us, we are ready. If you want to attack us, we have no fear."

In one of his first acts as president-elect, Ahmadinejad - who does not wear the turban of a cleric, a fact that helped his candidacy - Sunday paid his respects at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic.

No one predicted victory by the most hard-line candidate in the field, or the depth of economic discontent and class and social divisions that manifested themselves at the ballot box, in favor of the former Tehran mayor. Ahmadinejad was considered by many to be the last choice of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state, and has permitted a lengthy dialogue with Europe over nuclear issues, and the sending of some positive signals to the US.

The president-elect met Ayatollah Khamenei yesterday to hear "guidelines," but Ahmadinejad's statements so far take a much tougher line.

"It's a mini-coup d'etat," says a veteran Iranian political analyst. "Something bigger has happened ... it's a movement, not to say antiregime, but it's antiestablishment. Ahmadinejad happened to offer a window of opportunity for all the poor, and people who feel deprived."

"The supreme leader must cope with it, too," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. "For two or three years, there have been orchestrated closer ties to Europe, and signals to the US, which must have had the leader's blessing. And then someone is elected who is against all that."

Of the myriad conservative and reform-leaning factions in Iran, only the hard-line Ansar-e-Hizbollah - which has deployed chainwielding militants to break up student demonstrations and some reform rallies in the past - backed the mayor's bid.

All other groups, such as the rightist Coordination Council of the Revolutionary Forces and Association of Combatant Clergy, and the reformist Participation Front, supported candidates with better chances. Still, political opponents, led by Rafsanjani, reacted bitterly to their defeat, charging that Ahmadinejad's sweep had been illegally orchestrated, by getting the basiji religious militia and Revolutionary Guard forces to sway the vote.

"Ahmadinejad's victory represents a fooling of the public, by creating a war between different classes of rich and poor," says Mohammed Atrianfar, chief editor of the reformist Shargh newspaper, and aide to Rafsanjani.

Five months ago, he says, the basiji and Revolutionary Guards created a "Basirat Plan" to undermine Rafsanjani's credibility with leaflets that portray the former two-time president and his family as very rich and out of touch with ordinary Iranians.

Then two months ago, he asserts, basiji were instructed to list 10 people they know - and to convince them to vote for Ahmadinejad.

"So the basiji acted just like a political party, which is illegal," says Mr. Atrianfar. "A person with few prospects can't come from the city as a technocrat, and get 60 percent of the national vote, without going through an organization. And there is no organization besides the basiji, that could do it."

Such stories are widespread, and may have helped squeeze Ahmadinejad into the runoff vote, after coming in less than one percentage point ahead of his reformist rival, cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

But one Iranian Army general told a family member of a similar arrangement in the armed forces that he witnessed and worried him - but was geared toward electing another conservative candidate, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.

"These are warnings, and the independence of executive power has been compromised," says Atrianfar.

"This election should send a message to the leadership, that economic needs are the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 priority for people," says the veteran analyst. Most voters focused on the economic promises - which will be difficult enough to fulfill with Iran's convoluted and entrenched political, economic, and religious system - rather than possible consequences of tighter social rules.

While Ahmadinejad has a reputation as an uncompromising Islamist who reportedly ordered city-council staff to grow beards, one woman in his office said he is very tolerant of loose hair coverings and makeup - once punishable crimes in the first decade of the revolution - and has even recalled women staffers purged in the 1980s for such violations.

Still, before the vote, reformist Mehdi Karrubi touched on the fear. "Go and vote," he warned. "Otherwise they are going to make an Iranian Taliban here. The fanatics are coming, and people are not going to enjoy peace a security any longer."

But those who voted en masse for Ahmadinejad hold a different view. "Islam is against terror and against violence," says Jamshid Keshovarz, explaining that religious piety prompted his vote for Ahmadinejad. "Islam is a religion of freedom."

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