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Iran's New Hand

By Elaine Shannon, Scott Macleod, Aparism Ghosh, Nahid Siamdoust

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Iran
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Hard-liner is not a nice word, even for hard-liners. So, immediately after his stunning landslide last week, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that as Iran's new President, he would not be shutting Iran off from the rest of the world or curtailing the Internet or taking the country back to the 9th century.

His Iran, said the erstwhile mayor of Tehran, would be modern and strong (meaning nuclear powered) and rich, with prosperity to be shared among all classes, not just the élite. Still, the streets of Tehran's better-off northern districts were like a ghost town full of zombies, with residents in shock over the accession of a little-known revolutionary and Islamic zealot.

"We are doomed," said Nasser Soroudi, 33, a salesman at a photo shop. He, like many of his countrymen, believes that the new President will turn their country into "Taliban-land."

The unassuming Ahmadinejad, 48, defeated the wily political veteran Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, who ran on a pragmatic platform that promised accommodation with the West. But Rafsanjani could not consolidate support from the country's liberal and progressive voters who were wary of his family's largely unexplained wealth and unhappy about the corruption that grew under his watch as President from 1989 to 1997.

So while Iran's economically disadvantaged classes, Islamic militias and web of religious social-action groups provided Ahmadinejad with 62% of the votes, Rafsanjani could muster only 36% in a country almost evenly split along ideological lines and where many younger people -- more than 50% of the population -- want liberalization.

"I know a government by Ahmadinejad will mean regressing to the fiery days of the revolution," says Sepideh Ahmadlou, 24, who works for a software company. "But I couldn't bring myself to go and vote for Rafsanjani."

The biggest winner in this election is Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. Since succeeding to the head of the theocracy with the death of Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, Khamenei has always had to contend with rival conservatives like Rafsanjani or with reformist Mohammed Khatami, who has held the presidency since then.

While that office has always been much less powerful than that of the venerable Supreme Leader (Khamenei, while theoretically above politics, runs Iranian foreign and nuclear policy from behind closed doors), the presidency has been a strategic bully pulpit for those with ideas different from the theocracy.

Now with Rafsanjani humiliated at the polls and reformists crying in the wilderness, Khamenei has an acolyte as President. Ahmadinejad, says a political scientist based in Tehran, will effectively function as Khamenei's "executive secretary."

The opposition in Iran grumbles that Khamenei's hand -- and funds--may have given the modest Ahmadinejad's campaign a huge and unfair boost.

The former mayor's supporters say otherwise. Says one: "We believe God's hand is higher than everything else and it was his hand that made the people go and vote."

Still, says Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst at Tehran University, "The people of Iran would be naive to believe that Ahmadinejad was one of them, a simple man with no backing. Ahmadinejad is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind him are the regime's most powerful political and military institutions."

The Bush Administration has never been swayed by the reformist face of Iran over the past few years and remains unmoved by Ahmadinejad's soothing words after the election.

"We will judge the regime by its actions," said Joanne Moore, a State Department spokeswoman. Relations between Washington and Tehran are unlikely to be warmed by the new lineup.

"With neoconservatives in power in Washington, it is dangerous to have neoconservatives in power in Tehran," says an Iranian political scientist.

The hard-line triumph in Iran is already causing deep anxiety in neighboring Iraq, which is riven by Sunni and Shi'a factionalism. Now some Iraqis worry that whatever remains of their fragile détente may be shattered by pro-Shi'a Iranian interventionism.

Says Isam al-Rawi, an outspoken Sunni cleric in Baghdad: "Ahmadinejad is a man with narrow religious views, and he wants to export these."

But Iraq's Shi'a establishment, which has deep ties to Iran, is nonplussed.

"Ahmadinejad is a young man, a new player," says Rada Jawad Taqi, a Shi'a member of Iraq's interim National Assembly. "We have no relationship with him at all, but we have to build one now."



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