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Iran's New President: Conservative Politics and Traditional Values


Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is largely unknown outside of his country. He is also not someone within the visible internal circles of clerics and reformers. Despite that, Iranian voters chose him on June 24th in a nearly 62 percent landslide against former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. Most observers say Mr. Ahmadinejad's campaign shrewdly mixed populism and values honored in Iranian society. Now, many eyes are upon him to see where his presidency may take the nation both internally and in the international community.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born in 1956 in a town near the capital, Tehran. He earned a doctorate degree in transport engineering from Iran's University of Science and Technology, and began teaching there. This was shortly before Iran was transformed by the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ended the monarchy and swept into power clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mr. Ahmadinejad joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard in 1986 and took part in the 8-year-long war between Iran and Iraq. He then served in a series of government positions until he was elected mayor of Tehran in May, 2003. He was still Tehran's mayor when he won the presidency.

Shaul Bakhash, an Iranian teaching at George Mason University near Washington, DC, says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by appealing to common people and supporting their aspirations. "Mr. Ahmadinejad's principle focus," he says "has been on domestic issues, on opening up opportunities for, as he puts it, 'for the little man, for the forgotten man', not Iran's international relations - certainly [not] relations with the West."

Analyst Patrick Clawson at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's campaign for the presidency also reflected and spoke to a group within Iran that became a political force after the revolution. "Mr. Ahmadinejad, in many ways, is a representative figure for the veterans who fought the Iran-Iraq War, who think that they saved the country and that they're the ones who have the right values for preserving the revolution. This is the second generation of hard-line conservatives."

William Beeman at Brown University in the northeastern U.S. state of Rhode Island, who was in Iran for the presidential election, adds there was another component to Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory - how his image tapped into powerful social values. "Mr. Ahmadinejad doesn't live in a big palace like a lot of these folks do," he says. "He lives in a very humble house. Also, he has credentials as an engineer, one of the more revered professions in Iran. So the idea that an engineer would be living in this simple way - it just made people's hearts melt."

Professor Beeman says there was another factor in Mr. Ahmadinejad's presidential victory - a perception held by some Iranians that the clerics who led the 1979 revolution have become an elite who enjoy a privileged life and do whatever it takes to preserve their status. Mr. Ahmadinejad's opponent in the runoff election, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, is a prominent cleric.

Along with Mr. Ahmadinejad's concentration on domestic rather than foreign policy issues, Shaul Bakhash at George Mason University says the new president's economic ideas go against free market principles and appeal to nationalism. "He seems to be much more an advocate of state control or state involvement in the economy. He has expressed skepticism regarding the benefit of foreign investment in Iran, and has said that Iran's resources should be exploited by Iranians."

The new president's focus on domestic affairs instead of foreign policy, according to analyst Patrick Clawson at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, means that a major issue to other nations may not be addressed. "Mr. Ahmadinejad's background, suggests that he doesn't care very much about the outside world," he says "and he doesn't care very much if they [other nations] don't like him and they don't like Iran. And that's discouraging, because there were hopes that it would be possible to have a breakthrough with Iran about their nuclear program."

After his election victory, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made it clear that Iran's nuclear development would continue.

Brown University's William Beeman says that during his visits to Iran, he has heard from many people about outside efforts to halt Tehran's nuclear program. "Iranians say, 'It's not that they're [the West is] trying to protect the world against us being a dangerous power who wants to drop bombs on Tel Aviv," he says, adding "it's that they want to put us down. They want to hold us back. They want to make sure that we're a backward nation.' This makes the Iranians absolutely seethe with resentment."

Analyst Gary Samore at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London says the incoming president will not be the key decision maker regarding Iran's nuclear program and other major foreign policy matters. "The president of Iran has very little authority over crucial foreign policy issues. Those are in the hands of the Supreme National Security Council, which is dominated by the Supreme Leader, [Ayatollah] Ali Khameni. So from that standpoint, Ahmadinejad's election won't have a direct impact on foreign policy decision making because he's not likely to be a decisive voice."

Iran-watchers say predicting the future of Iran in the hands of its new president is difficult because Mr. Ahmadinejad has never held a national office. His past statements suggest, however, he will govern based on what he perceives the needs and desires of his country, especially the common people, to be rather than the opinions of outsiders. And most analysts say it is now up to other countries and international bodies to accept Mr. Ahmadinejad's election and fashion their strategies accordingly.

This report was originally aired on VOA News Now's "Focus" program. For other Focus reports, click here

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