Shock as Iran elects hardline president 

A man whose name does not even appear in the most recent edition of Iran’s political Who’s Who

Robert Tait, Tehran
Sunday June 26, 2005
The Observer

His admirers hail him as Iran’s Robin Hood, his critics a religious extremist. But yesterday Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the president elect of Iran, basking in an electoral landslide few had foreseen and which put Islamic hardliners firmly in control.

After eight years of cautious liberalisation under Mohammed Khatami, Iranians now face an era of austere Islamist leadership. Ahmadinejad is supported by the basij, a volunteer grassroots militia that acts as a vigilante force ensuring religious laws are observed.

‘Cut the hands off the mafias’

Reformers have labelled his rise as a ‘fascist’ militarist coup, but it was clear yesterday that his pledge to help Iran’s poor and crack down on rampant corruption had resonated with many. During the campaign, he vowed to ‘cut the hands off the mafias’ he says are in charge of the country’s oil industry and redistribute the revenues.

Equally important was the active support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – the real centre of power in the Islamic republic. That resulted in a mass vote mobilisation exercise spearheaded by basij leaders from mosques across the country.

‘Ahmadinejad’s vote comes from two sections of the electorate,’ one Tehran-based analyst said. ‘The first are genuine hard-core religious voters who rallied behind him when they realised that certain people were supporting him in the Revolutionary Guards.

‘The second part belonged to the forces of tradition. These are people who have difficulties coping with the changes in society. They want somebody who appears modest and honest.’

It all amounts to a meteoric rise for a man whose name does not even appear in the most recent edition of Iran’s political Who’s Who.

He became governor of the north-western province of Ardebil in the 1990s, but was still a political novice when elected mayor of Tehran. In that role, he used his PhD in traffic and transportation engineering to bring order to the city’s chaotic road network. He lived in a modest house, in contrast to the conspicuous lifestyles enjoyed by other senior regime figures.

‘The country’s true problem is employment and housing, not what to wear.’

But the mostly secular better-off fear his presidency may herald a clampdown on already limited social freedoms, such as the mingling of the sexes and the right of women to wear hijab in a looser, more colourful style.

Ahmadinejad has dismissed such concerns, saying: ‘The country’s true problem is employment and housing, not what to wear.’

His campaign advisers insist Khatami’s modest reforms will not be reversed and that private behaviour will not be regulated.

‘We will never stop or prevent any movement which has taken Iran forward and we will never move back,’ his media spokesman, Dr Nader Shariatmadari, said. ‘We respect people’s freedoms in the political, cultural and social realms within the framework of the law.’

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