June 27, 2005

West views Iran’s president-elect with concern

By Paul Hughes

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Hardline President-elect MahmoudAhmadinejad faced an uphill task on Monday to assuage concernin the West that he will adopt a tougher policy on Iran'snuclear program and roll back freedoms at home.

The ex-Tehran mayor, who defeated veteran politician AkbarHashemi Rafsanjani in a crushing election win on Friday, hasadopted a conciliatory stance since the vote, vowing tocontinue nuclear talks with Europe and to lead a moderategovernment.

But his track record as a former member of the hardlineRevolutionary Guards and outspoken commitment to the principlesof the 1979 Islamic revolution have convinced some that what hesays and how he will act may be very different.

"He's starting from a position of a confidence deficit,"said one Iran analyst, who declined to be named.

"No matter what he says right now, people will assume theworst, even though what he's saying is not much different fromwhat Rafsanjani would have said if he'd been elected or whatthe current government's position is."

Iran says it wants nuclear technology to generateelectricity, not make bombs. It has agreed to freeze somenuclear work while it negotiates a long-term arrangement withthe EU, talks on which are due to resume in August.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on SundayAhmadinejad, who takes over from reformist Mohammad Khatami onAug. 3, was "no friend of democracy (and) no friend offreedom."

EU officials had also expressed worries, although seniorofficials on Monday said they had an open mind.

"At this point in time I am just in a waiting mood," saidEU Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana. "I took note of theelections and I think the most important thing is to wait andsee how the words are translated into action."


Analysts say many European governments had been banking ona win for Rafsanjani, who had portrayed himself as the onlypolitical figure in Iran with the experience and influence toresolve the nuclear issue and repair ties with Washington.

But Ahmadinejad's initial statements have not differedsubstantially from Rafsanjani's campaign positions.

On Sunday he said he welcomed relations with any countrythat did not adopt hostile policies toward Iran. He added hewould not abandon nuclear talks with the EU, althoughnegotiations would be based on Tehran's "national interest."

Iran's Foreign Ministry on Sunday urged the West not topre-judge Ahmadinejad, who was backed by 62 percent of Friday'svoters who were attracted by his pledges to tackle poverty andcorruption and redistribute booming oil income more fairly.

The Tehran Stock Exchange bounced back slightly on Monday,closing 0.2 percent higher following two days of losses, afterAhmadinejad denied rumors he was opposed to the bourse.

In Iran's complex mixture of democratic and theocraticgovernment, the last word on major policy issues lies withSupreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who tends to adopt ahardline stance on foreign policy and other matters.

Ahmadinejad, 48, despite being Iran's first non-clericpresident for 24 years, is considered more religiouslyconservative than leading political clerics like Khatami andRafsanjani, and, unlike them, is unlikely to challengeKhamenei's views.

But Iranian analysts do not expect the new government toadopt an immediately hostile attitude toward the West.

"He will probably be quite cautious on foreign policy atfirst and concentrate more on his domestic agenda of wealthredistribution and social justice," said analyst MahmoudAlinejad.