Monday, June 27, 2005

Iran Election Win By Hard-Liner Snarls Ties to West

Farnaz Fassihi, The Wall Street Journal:
The landslide victory of a hard-line loyalist as president completes ultraconservatives' control of all levers of Iran's government and significantly complicates relations with the West -- particularly with a European Union trying to negotiate Iran's nuclear capabilities while expanding economic ties.

So far, President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken an uncompromising tone regarding Iran's plans to enrich uranium in order to make energy for peaceful purposes. Yesterday, at his first news conference since his triumph, Mr. Ahmadinejad called his nation's nuclear program "the absolute right for Iran and every Iranian," adding that "most of the world has recognized this right except a few countries who think they are better than everyone else." READ MORE

Under the international nonproliferation treaty to which Iran is a signatory, the country has the legal right to pursue nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran has faced tremendous political pressure from the U.S. and the European Union to abandon its program in exchange for economic incentives, or face the possibility of sanctions.

Some Western nations say Iran lost their trust because it hid its nuclear program from the world for nearly two decades.

The EU and U.S. have reacted warily to Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory. The Bush administration called the entire election process undemocratic because nearly a thousand candidates were disqualified from running by the Guardian Council, a religious body that supervises elections. Likewise, some European diplomats familiar with nuclear negotiations with Iran said that while a new president won't necessarily change the immediate outlook for the talks, it has made the diplomats more pessimistic about a process they already saw as having only an outside chance of success.

"The basic Iranian position, that they want to enrich uranium, isn't going to change," a British diplomat in London said. "We don't want them to enrich, and that won't change either. We're still at opposite ends of the debate."

Mr. Ahmadinejad, the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran and Iran's first noncleric president in 24 years, was swept into power by promising to revive the ideals of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. He pledged to form a populist government free of corruption and to establish an Islamic socialist system focused on closing the gaps between rich and poor. His supporters in Tehran's southern slums call him an "Islamic Robin Hood."

According to the Interior Ministry, Mr. Ahmadinejad won 17.2 million votes compared with rival Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who secured a little more than 10 million. The ministry said about 28 million Iranians voted in Friday's runoff. "With these elections and our success, Iranians showed the world that they want and accept this regime and everything that it entails," said Seyed Ali Riaz, a conservative member of Parliament and campaign adviser to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Iran's political power structure consists of an elected government supervised by an unelected clerical regime. For the past eight years, reformist President Mohammad Khatami and his government fought to gradually democratize the system and thus curb the powers of appointed officials. The appointed clerics, headed by the religious Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, blocked the reformists at every turn, rejecting legislation, vetting candidates and effectively demonstrating that real power lays in their hands.

On election day, many Iranians, disillusioned by the reformists' inability to deliver, either switched sides and voted for those they deemed to be powerful, regime-connected candidates -- such as Mr. Ahmadinejad -- or boycotted altogether. This combination handed victory to the hard-liners, marginalizing reformists even further.

The reformers' first defeat came two years ago in Tehran's municipal elections, where a low turnout gave the city council -- and thus the mayoral post -- to conservatives. In February 2004, reformers suffered another blow when nearly 2,000 of their candidates were disqualified and conservatives took over Parliament.

Last week, Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory closed the final gap in the circle.

"There is unity now in Iran's politics, it's the voice of the hard-liners," said Ali Reza Jalaeepour, a political analyst. "But civil society still belongs to the reformists, and I doubt they'll back off."

---- Marc Champion in London contributed to this article.

Write to Farnaz Fassihi at