Iran victor seeks return to Islamic ideals

By Gareth Smyth

Financial Times

Published: June 26 2005

The landslide victory of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad in Iran’s presidential election has ended the eight-year reform era of president Mohammad Khatami.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory came after a campaign he fought as a self-proclaimed ‘fundamentalist’ and with enthusiastic support of poorer Iranians facing 15 percent inflation and 12 percent unemployment.

His 17.3m votes in Friday’s run-off overwhelmed the 10m won by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the 71-year-old stalwart of the 26-year-old Islamic Republic.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, the 49-year-old son of a blacksmith, wants to return to the social egalitarianism of the 1979 Islamic Revolution while promoting younger managers and curbing corruption.

In a recent interview with the FT, he said Iran had shown “too much good-will vis-a-vis the US and Europe”, but he is unlikely to challenge the country’s security policy, including its controversial nuclear policy, which is made through consensus of the ruling elite, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.

The president-elect is committed to redistribute Iran’s oil revenue more equitably, and the economic policy of his fundamentalist allies in the parliament elected last year suggests he will favour state-led solutions.

But aides of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad have quickly given assurances that their notion of egalitarian Islam is not hostile to private enterprise or foreign investment. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has already called for greater transparency in the oil sector to save resources.

A new generation of younger fundamentalists now control both parliament and the presidency. They can also expect co-operation from the Guardian Council, the Islamic watchdog overseeing the political process.

While this gives them leeway to implement policies, it also removes room for excuses if they fall short. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has offered millions of Iranians tangible improvements in their lives, and he will now be expected to deliver.

The election is a boost to the Islamic Republic. The 63 percent turnout of the first ballot and near 60 percent of the run-off showed Iranian did believe it mattered who was president, however qualified his powers in Iran’s Islamic system.

The exiled US-based opposition’s unsuccessful call for a boycott exposed its weakness, and George W Bush’s condemnation of the election angered far more Iranians than it pleased.

“The competition proved the Islamic Republic is still a legitimate and acceptable system,” wrote Mohammad Qouchani, editor of Sharq, the reformist newspaper. “The opposition that seeks regime change and the part who sought a boycott were the biggest losers.”

With the result announced, Iran’s leaders closed ranks. Ayatollah Khamenei paid tribute to Mr Rafsanjani as a “dear brother” whom he hoped would remain “in important fields”.

While voting on Friday, Mr Rasfanjani had said the election of his rival would pose “no problem” for the system. And in a sign of ‘business as usual’ on Saturday, state television reported the Expediency Council, a powerful state body chaired by Mr Rafsanjani, had resumed work.

Mr Ahmadi-Nejad told Iranians in a radio broadcast to “forget all our rivalries and turn them into friendships … to build a great society.”

Ali Younesi, reformist information minister, said Iran’s ninth presidential election had been the “healthiest, calmest and most sound ever” - despite allegations of irregularities from Mr Rafsanjani’s camp that followed those of Mehdi Karrubi, defeated in the first round.

Iranian leaders have long minimised public conflicts and are likely to continue to do so, especially in the face of increased US belligerence after Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s victory.

After eight years in government, the reformists now face a period in the cold.

Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the former vice president, quickly acknowledged “we focused our attention on elites and forgot the ordinary people who are trying to get their daily bread”.

But there was also a sense among reformists that the pluralism of the election vindicated the work of Mohammad Khatami, who stands down for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad in early August.

Mr Khatami urged his successor to safeguard “the greatest achievement of the Islamic Revolution, religious democracy”.