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    Middle East
     Jun 27, 2005
Iran's 'street sweeper' sweeps into power
By Safa Haeri

In a vote described by some political analysts as a "political tsunami", Iranians have elected a "street sweeper" as their president, sending packing the country's intelligentsia, bourgeois-liberal society, official reformists and diehard dissidents who have been calling for a complete change of the present ruling system.

"I take pride in being the Iranian nation's little servant and street sweeper," the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran, Mahmud Ahmadinejad said as he was casting his vote on Friday and winning the race with his millionaire rival, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in a landslide of 61 to 39 percent of votes.

The victory of the austere and pious Ahmadinejad stunned both Iranian observers and the world, as, in the week between the first and second round of elections, most large circulation newspapers, influential commentators, candidates who were defeated in the first round, and leaders of the largest reformist political parties and organizations, joined by pro-reform student associations and Iranian dissidents abroad, had rallied behind Rafsanjani, warning against the dangers of "military fascism" represented by Ahmadinejad, a former Revolutionary Guards officer. Ahmadinejad had already caused a surprise by finishing a narrow second to Rafsanjani in the first round of voting.

For some analysts, the election was a replay of 1979, when the great majority of Iranians took to the streets in support for Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his Islamic Revolution. According to Ahmadinejad, "Iranian people are a special nation. We should know this people and make them known. It is a nation of history makers."

Unlike other candidates, the "street sweeper" avoided expensive, American-style campaigning, grandiloquent speeches and controversial international issues such a relations with the United States and nuclear issues. He concentrated rather on poor people's problems and expressed their grievances: "Why does a minister or a deputy minister spend millions for the decoration of his office while his real job is not in Tehran, but in the provinces?" he asked, adding, "How come some private banks make billions in profits in a few years?".He also indirectly accused Rafsanjani of having "monopolized" the lucrative Oil Ministry.

While the losers of this election warn of a return of the country to "dark middle ages" and "Islamic inquisition", seasoned Iranian analysts are more reserved, observing that the "occupation" of the presidency by the ruling conservatives makes decision-making and governance "more stable, more practical, more responsible".

"With Mr Ahmadinejad considered as a faithful son and adept" of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, "the political situation in Tehran will become more homogenized. There will be no more feuding between the leader and the president, paralyzing the country ... now [Ayatollah] Khamenei is fully at the helm, getting the credit if things get better and also the blame if people are not satisfied," noted Sadeq Ziba Kalam, a Tehran University professor talking to Radio Farda, a Persian service of the US government-sponsored Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.

In his first statement after his victory, Ahmadinejad promised he would "build up an exemplary, developed and powerful Islamic society" and invited other candidates to cooperate: "Today, all competition should turn into friendship. We are part of a big family that should go hand in hand to build our proud Iran."

Nevertheless, the new president will face serious challenges from both right and left. Hardline clerics will press him to restore a fully Islamic society based on the laws of the Sharia, or Islamic canons. The poor class that voted for him will expect him to quickly solve their pressing problems - unemployment, inflation, social security, food, housing, and widespread corruption.

On the left, while the middle class, the younger generation and women are worried that their limited social and cultural freedom will be further restricted, the political class is concerned about Ahmadinejad's social-communist economic views and aggressive foreign policies. They fear a collapse of the country's already ailing economy and more isolation on the international scene, paving the way eventually to foreign military intervention.

To those who fear increased tension in Iranian relations with Washington and the European Union over Iran's controversial nuclear activities, both outgoing President Mohammad Khatami and his successor have responded that foreign policy and nuclear ambitions are not issues decided by the government, but by the supreme leader, who, under the Iranian constitution, has the last word on all major issues, domestic or international.

Ahmadinejad told reporters: "The Islamic Republic is not afraid of restoring relations with America, but one must carefully calculate the benefits and damages of such a decision in order that our independence, honor and dignity are not harmed." He added: "I want sincere and close relations with all nations and governments and we are ready to have a positive interaction towards any government that does not take the position of animosity towards us."

On the nuclear issue, Ahmadinejad said: "Access to nuclear technology is our legitimate right and no one has the right to stop our march to progress. Furthermore, no country can attack Iran and the threats that are proffered are designed to frighten us, leading to giving away our nuclear projects. But we shall not surrender."

Hojjatoleslam Hasan Rohani, the Secretary of Iran's Supreme Council on National Security and Iran's chief negotiator with both the European troika of Britain, France and Germany and the International Atomic Energy Agency, had previously stated that the nuclear program, including enriching uranium, would continue, "regardless of whoever becomes president".

Unlike England and the United States, which branded the election as "undemocratic" and promised to support dissidents "who call for greater freedom for the Iranian people", France and Germany said they would reserve judgment until the new president's policies became clearer.

For Rafsanjani, the 71-year-old veteran politician who has for the past 26 years been the number two man in the theocratic political system, it was a very heavy personal defeat, similar to February 2005 parliamentary elections in which he could not secure enough votes from Tehran inhabitants to enter the Majlis (parliament).

Rafsanjani said that "like the previous round" (of elections held on 17 July 2005), he would take his complaints to the "divine court of justice" and protest about "the billions of the people's money" spent on "damaging and ruining" him and his family as well as against "illegal intervention ... using the system's possibilities" - referring indirectly to both the military and the Council of Guardians, an unelected organ in charge of vetting all candidates in all elections, acting in favour of Ahmadinejad. However, Rafsanjani wished the new president well and hoped he could carry out his difficult task.

"Probably, the former president [Rafsanjani] is not aware of the degree to which Iranians hate him and his family, considering him as the symbol of high corruption, nepotism, political manipulation [and also blaming him for] participation in the murder of many Iranian intellectuals and dissidents inside and outside the country," observed an Iranian writer based in Germany.

Though Rafsanjani, chairman of the powerful Expediency Council had indicated on Thursday that "regardless of the outcome of the ballot boxes" he would create a new "Islamic Moderation Party", and despite the strong message of sympathy from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in favor of his "old brother and friend", his political future has been thrown into serious doubt.

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.

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