Winning message centered on Iran's economy

The president-elect pitched dignity for working people and an end to corruption.

Associated Press
Published June 26, 2005

TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's new president spoke Saturday of making Iran a "modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic" model for the world, borrowing the style of the hard-line ruling clerics that backed him in his landslide victory.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's brief radio address to the nation did not mention his views on the future of Iran's growing social freedoms - leaving liberal critics still fearing the worst.

It was an ironic twist that Iran's first noncleric to reach the country's highest elected office since the 1979 Islamic Revolution was more religiously unyielding than the cleric he defeated, former President Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"My mission is creating a role model of a modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic society," he said in the message broadcast shortly after the announcement of final results, which sealed his stunning defeat of the self-proclaimed moderate Rafsanjani.

The victory gives conservatives control of Iran's two highest elected offices - the presidency and parliament.

The results, announced on state television, gave Ahmadinejad 61.6 percent of the vote to Rafsanjani's 35.9 percent. The rest of the ballots were deemed invalid.

Turnout among Iran's approximately 47-million eligible voters was more than 59 percent. In the previous week's election, the turnout was close to 63 percent.

Ahmadinejad's one-word campaign catchphrase - "Dignity" - resonated strongly. Iran is the No. 2 OPEC producer, and foreign investors are salivating for Iran's hungry consumer market. But the ruling theocracy controls all important business policies and contracts, and critics say it has fostered a cozy and corruption-riddled system. The group Transparency International ranked Iran about the middle of the pack in its 2004 "corruption perception" index, ahead of India but behind Mongolia.

Official statistics say unemployment is about 16 percent, but some analysts place the true figure above 30 percent. Some reports also say up to 40 percent of Iranians live under the poverty line - the point where income cannot keep pace with basic needs.

"People have been talking about head scarves and TV shows and music. Wonderful," said Hamid Nowrouzi, 30, a machinist. "But what about talking about having enough to eat or raise a family?"

In a final TV campaign pitch Wednesday, Ahmadinejad described the Iranian everyman: making the equivalent of about $150 a month and crushed by bills and inflation hovering around 15 percent.

"How can such a person have dignity in front of his children and wife?" he said. "How can a family respect him if he cannot even take care of them?"

The president-elect has said he is in no hurry to re-establish relations with the United States, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran after its embassy was besieged for 444 days and 52 employees held hostage in 1979. As a student, Ahmadinejad (aah-MA-dee-ni-JAHD) joined an ultraconservative faction of the Office for Strengthening Unity, the radical student group that staged the embassy's capture.

"The United States was free to cut its ties with Iran, but the Iranian government is free to decide about restarting its relationship with the United States as well," Ahmadinejad said on his Web site. "This decision will be made when Iran has the guarantee that its interests will be secure in any new relationship."

Governments of Muslim countries offered cautious congratulations in response to the election, while several Western countries - including the United States - sharply criticized the vote Saturday. There were complaints that the candidates allowed to run for president were decided by the powerful Guardian Council, made up of clerics, who disqualified upward of 1,000 contestants, including 50 women.

In Washington, White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri said Saturday the United States was concerned about the fairness of the elections.

"We strongly support free and fair elections through which the Iranian people can express their will," Tamburri said. "We have expressed our clear concerns about the recent elections where over 1,000 candidates were disqualified from running, and there were many allegations of election fraud and interference."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said many candidates were excluded and there were widespread complaints that security forces and other arms of the government had interfered improperly in the first round of the elections held June 17.

"For the Iranian people to have a fully free choice about their country's future, they should be able to vote for candidates who hold the full range of political views, not just candidates selected for them," he said.

Ahmadinejad, who currently is Tehran's mayor, has not revealed the makeup of his Cabinet, but his deputy campaign manager said a 200-member team cobbled together during the presidential campaign has been poring over names and resumes.

"The only requirement is a willingness to serve the people," said Abdulhasan Faqih, 32, a soft-spoken doctor who helped steer Ahmadinejad's campaign.

Faqih said there would be no review of Iran's nuclear policy.

Iran suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities in November to avoid having its nuclear program referred to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. Iran insists its enrichment activities are for civilian uses only - not to make nuclear weapons, as the United States claims.

"Our nuclear technology is homegrown and no one will stop our nuclear development," Faqih said.

But he said a military application of Iran's nuclear development was not under consideration.