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New Iranian President Expected to Focus on Domestic Issues


Next week, Mahmood Ahmadinejad will officially become president of Iran. Mr. Ahmadinejad, the former mayor of Tehran, burst from relative political obscurity to win an upset victory in June's presidential election.

During the hotly contested presidential campaign, Mahmood Ahmadinejad, the conservative former mayor of Tehran, ran a populist campaign, with promises to better the lives of ordinary citizens. Now his moment of truth comes, as it does for politicians worldwide when they assume office and are expected to deliver on their promises.

But real authority in Iran resides with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the one who sets Iran's political agenda, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Analysts say that while Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Khamenei share strong hard-line conservative views, it is not clear how much room Mr. Ahmadinejad will have to maneuver.

In Washington, Shaul Bakhash, a history professor at George Mason University and non-resident fellow at the Saban Institute for Middle East Studies, believes there will be little change in Iran's stance on foreign policy matters, such as relations with the West and the nuclear issue that is the focus of negotiations between Iran and the European Union.

"Major foreign policy issues are not only the prerogative of the Supreme Leader, but also have become part of the Iranian consensus," he explained. "For example, on the nuclear issue it's unlikely that Iran's negotiating position will change dramatically as the result of this recent presidential election."

Kenneth Katzman, chief Iran analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says Mr. Ahmadinejad's real interest is in domestic affairs anyway.

"He clearly has very strong views on economics, on redistribution of wealth, taking care of the lower classes," he said. "He's very much less interested in all sorts of ambitious trade deals with the West, and foreign investment schemes, et cetera. He really believes in redistribution and creating employment for the lower classes. And that's going to color how he deals with the West, I think."

Analysts believe Mr. Ahmadinejad will be able to pursue economic reform policies so long as oil prices remain high, which brings great wealth into Iran's coffers.

Mr. Bakhash says the appointments Mr. Admadinejad makes not only to the cabinet, but to the second and third-tier jobs in Iran's powerful bureaucracy, are critical to just how much he will be able to accomplish.

"The likelihood is that these changes in personnel will be rather sweeping, and if a great many people without much experience and who have a very conservative stance on both domestic and foreign policy issues come to office, then we may well see change, an important change, in tone and maybe even in policy under the new administration," he added.

The reform movement saw its candidate soundly defeated in the first round of voting, and voiced great fear that an Ahmadinejad presidency will try to roll back the small victories they won during the term of outgoing President Mohammed Khatemi. Mr. Admadinejad has pledged to preserve freedom. But, as Mr. Bakhash points out, the reformists and the new president have profoundly different ideas about what freedom means in modern Iran.

"If you look carefully at what he says, he doesn't seem to attach a great deal of importance to political freedoms or freedom of the press," he explained. "And when he speaks about freedoms and liberties, he seems to be thinking much more of opportunity for the little man in the economy, in the civil service, in securing bank loans - that kind of thing. And that is where we may see the greatest emphasis, rather than on expanding or even retaining political freedoms."

Mr. Katzman, the Congressional Research Service analyst, adds that Mr. Ahmadinejad will quickly realize he has limited political capital to spend in his efforts, and that will affect how he proceeds.

"I think he's going to pick his battles very carefully," he said. "I think if he tries to go to the mat over how women are dressed or couples holding hands in parks in Tehran, I think he's going to have a tough fight on his hands. And I don't think he wants to expend that political capital to do that. I think that he's more likely to move against corruption, to try to level the playing field on the economy."

But, as Mr. Bakhash points out, battling corruption, another Ahmadinejad campaign pledge, is also fraught with political peril.

"There is both a perception and the reality of widespread corruption and inside dealing and the like, there is no doubt," he explained. "And this message resonated powerfully with the electorate in the elections. But he does face very powerful entrenched interests. And we will have to see how much capital he's willing to expend and how much courage he shows in pursuing an anti-corruption campaign."

The new president has 15 days after his swearing-in to present his cabinet to the Majlis, or Parliament.

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