TEHRAN, Iran—Many Iranians fear that by electing Mahmoud Ahmadinjead as their next president, voters may have slammed the door on political freedom and placed their future in the hands of hard-line clerics and the elite military establishment that backs them.
Many of Iran's more moderate politicians and clerics worry that Ahmadinjead's populist nationalism and archconservative brand of Shiite Islam will return their country to international pariah status and revive the purges and oppression that prevailed two decades ago.
Ahmadinjead's election also could complicate U.S. and European Union efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program as the EU prepares to resume talks with Iran next month. The new president's "Abadgaran" party, which has controlled parliament since last year, has demanded that Iran resume its uranium enrichment program despite an agreement with European negotiators to suspend it.
Iranians themselves seemed unsure of what will come next. Despite Ahmadinejad's landslide 62 percent to 36 percent victory, the atmosphere Saturday in the sprawling capital where's he's been a popular mayor was subdued. Neither the victor nor defeated former president Hashemi Rafsanjani made any public appearances. The only sign that Iran had a new leader was a taped message by Ahmadinejad (pronounced ah-mah-DEE-nay-jahd), broadcast on state-run radio, in which he spoke of his "mission to create a role model of a modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic society" that the world could emulate.
It remained unclear, however, who he'd choose for his new cabinet to help enact his vision for a new Iran, although it's widely believed that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will play a pivotal role in selecting ministers.
Rival candidates and elected officials alleged that Khamenei's allies helped propel Ahmadinejad to the top, using the elite Revolutionary Guards and the vigilante "Basij" militias to intimidate voters, buy votes and campaign illegally.
But widespread government corruption and a flagging economy, despite Iran's vast petroleum wealth, helped prompt 17 million Iranians to vote for Ahmadinejad and turn their backs on 16 years of attempted political and social reform under Rafsanjani and outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.
Iran's official unemployment rate is 16 percent, although in reality, closer to one in three Iranians can't find work. A million young Iranians are entering the work force each year, analysts say.
In television interviews and campaign spots, Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith's son, highlighted his humble roots, including the three-decade-old Peugeot he drives. He'd never stood in elections before—he was appointed by the city council as Tehran's mayor in 2003—and attracted voters with a pledge to root out corruption.
Rafsanjani, a veteran cleric and former president and parliament speaker, is driven around in a late-model Mercedes. He tried to recast himself as a reformer but failed to shake his reputation as a shady tycoon and government insider.
"We had eight years of Mr. Rafsanjani and except for increasing the divide between the rich and the poor and putting money in his own pocket, what did he do?" asked Sabah Shirban, 24, an accountant in central Tehran who voted for Ahmadinejad.
"He will fix our country," predicted Ali Fasihi, a 12th-grader in southern Tehran and an Ahmadinejad voter who soon will be looking for work as an electrician.
"People were angry about what happened and they wanted justice," said Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident cleric who served time in a prison for his beliefs on political and social reform. "They watched the growing gap between the rich and poor and also saw that Mr. Khatami was not successful in enacting his slogans."
With oil prices at $60 a barrel, even Ahmadinejad's critics believe he'll be able to boost ordinary Iranians' standard of living a little, possibly through cash payments. But his ill-defined brand of Islamic socialism—some Iranians compare him to Benito Mussolini, the Italian fascist—and vague plans for improving Iran's economic ties to the rest of the world are making foreign investors jittery.
The biggest winner in Friday's election may turn out to be Supreme Leader Khamenei. Reformers say Ahmadinejad's election is a coup that's been in the making for 16 years, ever since Khamenei, then president, began to consolidate power in the hands of archconservatives like himself.
Now, as the country's supreme leader, Kadivar and other reformers say, Khamenei has a presidential "yes man" who'll silence political dissent while Iran's unelected clerics continue to wield the real power.
"If you have a Supreme Leader, you don't need a president in charge," said Kadivar. Khamenei "is the real victor in these elections."
The Iran's reformers say they'll regroup as their nation's vocal, and now broader opposition, joined by Rafsanjani and centrist cleric, former parliament speaker and failed presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi, who last week resigned as an adviser to Khamenei to protest the leader's refusal to address allegations of voting irregularities. With the reformers now on the outside, they hope to rebuild their public support.
One of their first major proposed acts, said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a veteran sociologist and a political adviser to the key reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, is a boycott of next year's national elections for the Assembly of Experts, which selects the all-powerful Supreme Leader.
Said Jalaipour: "The main problem that remains in this country is that we haven't got a democracy, we have a pseudo-democracy."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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