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|Posted: Sun Jun 19, 2005 6:23 am Post subject: Newcomer to face veteran in Iran
|Brian Murphy, Associated Press
June 19, 2005
TEHRAN, IRAN -- Tehran's archconservative mayor capped a stunning political rise Saturday to claim second place in Iran's presidential race and face one of the nation's most famous statesmen in a head-to-head vote.
Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- a 49-year-old former student radical backed by Iran's ruling clerics and their military guardians -- was considered a long-shot challenger in Friday's election. But his popularity among Iran's hard-line factions and key groups such as the elite Revolutionary Guards helped him qualify for the presidential runoff election.
One rival, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, accused Islamic vigilantes and soldiers of "intimidating" voters to back Ahmadinejad -- who slipped past Karroubi 19.48 percent to 19.3 percent. Karroubi's aides demanded an investigation and warned that demonstrations were possible.
Karroubi's campaign chief, Ali Akbar Montashamipour, said any signs of military interference in politics would make "people rise up against the establishment."
The top vote-getter, political veteran Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, had just slightly more than 21 percent of the ballots. He will face Ahmadinejad on Friday in Iran's first runoff elections. To win outright in the first round, a candidate needed a majority of all votes cast.
The results reflected significant shifts in Iran -- with conservatives reclaiming more ground and liberals worrying more about jobs and foreign policy leadership than the fight for greater social freedoms.
The top pro-reform candidate, former culture minister Mostafa Moin, was humbled by a distant fifth-place finish. Moin, considered the political heir of outgoing President Muhammad Khatami, was billed as Rafsanjani's most credible rival.
But his bid was steamrolled by conservatives at the polls. Voter turnout of 62.7 percent defied a boycott drive by groups opposing the Islamic system -- which comprised a strong part of Moin's bloc.
"Our failure ... doesn't mean reforms have come to an end or Iran doesn't need change," said Elaheh Koolaee, a top aide for Moin.
The finish was also a parting shot to Khatami's eight years in office, said Iranian political analyst Reza Fathi.
Khatami managed to lift many of the social restrictions imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution such as bans on dating and Western music. But he failed in his main missions: to weaken the all-powerful controls of the clergy and improve the economy. Despite vast oil and gas wealth, many people earn less than $2,000 a year, inflation runs above 20 percent and some analysts place the jobless rate near 40 percent.
The runoff election will offer voters two distinct choices.
Rafsanjani, 70, is a mix of political cunning and business power as nominal head of a family empire that includes an airline and a large cut of the nation's $400 million pistachio export business. He served as president from 1989 to 1997 -- bowing out because of a two-term limit -- and then moving into the inner circles of the theocracy.
He portrays himself as the most capable leader to handle Iran's delicate negotiations with the West over its nuclear ambitions, which Washington claims is a cover for a weapons program. Iran says it only seeks peaceful nuclear power.
Ahmadinejad was a member of a militant student faction during the revolution and later volunteered to fight on the front lines against Saddam Hussein's forces. He served in provincial posts during the 1990s before he was appointed mayor of Tehran in 2003 by the conservative-led municipal council.
Rafsanjani has suggested he would be open to greater dialogue with the United States. At a news conference on Saturday, Ahmadinejad said that he could not foresee improved ties with any country that "seeks hostility" against Iran.
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