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Iran's supreme strategy: Why is Ahmadinejad the chosen one?

The president's ties to military and security forces, as well as his hardline foreign policy, are among the factors cited for his support from the country's supreme leader.

By Staff writer / June 23, 2009

Istanbul, Turkey

The price has been high of massive and sometimes violent Iranian reaction to the official landslide reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But no one has paid more than the country's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, whose decision to bless the result as "divine" – and side openly with Mr. Ahmadinejad, despite charges of extensive fraud – has sparked the widest popular challenge to the Islamic Republic in 30 years.

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So why is Ahmadinejad the chosen one?

Experts suggest a number of reasons, from his ties to the military and security forces, to populist domestic and hardline foreign policies, to sheer loyalty, that might have caused the leader to approve of – or even engineer – an Ahmadinejad win.

"[Ayatollah Khamenei] realizes that the armed forces of the establishment are more supportive of Ahmadinejad than they would be of anyone else," says Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

On Monday, police and armed basiji militants, operating from their makeshift base at the large Shirudi sports complex in downtown Tehran, forcefully prevented several hundred people from gathering at the nearby Haft-e Tir Square.

The Revolutionary Guard threatened a "revolutionary confrontation" to put down any further protests.

Analysts say that, among other things, Ahmadinejad's four-year cultivation of the basiji and Revolutionary Guard forces with posts and contracts may have given him an edge.

"Ahmadinejad came from them. Ahmadinejad always had their support, and Ahmadinejad placed them in all important positions of power, right across the country; governors and all the provincial places are full of Revolutionary Guards, basiji, and his people – he changed everyone," says Ms. Torfeh. "He's put them there. He's looked after them.... He's got the thugs. He's got the power behind him, and of course Khamenei has."

A political analyst, speaking in Tehran, says the supreme leader prefers Ahmadinejad's tough stance in foreign policy, which in four years has yielded a boost in Iran's nuclear program from zero to some 7,000 centrifuges enriching uranium – despite United Nations and Western sanctions. In addition, Washington is no longer talking about regime change, but asking for dialogue.

"This was Khamenei's hardball foreign policy, and it's worked," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. "If you care about your geopolitical position, what matters most? Not sanctions. You are standing tall, and you basically won against your [foreign] enemies."

But Khamenei's domestic strategy has yielded an unprecedented challenge to the regime – seen in the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have protested in the past 10 days.