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Iran's New Conservative President Makes Reformists Nervous


Mahmood Ahmadinejad is the new president of Iran. In a ceremony in Tehran Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ratified Mr. Ahmadinejad's landslide electoral victory in June's election. Mr. Ahmadinejad will receive formal parliamentary approval Saturday.

In 1997, Iran's reformists were overjoyed when Mohammad Khatemi won a surprise victory in the presidential race. On Wednesday, Mr. Khatemi, who was repeatedly frustrated by conservatives who blocked his reform efforts, handed power over to the most conservative of the seven candidates who ran in June's presidential race.

Mahmood Admadinejad's electoral victory left the reform movement nervous and in disarray. Kenneth Katzman, senior Iran analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the reformists need to regain touch with the poor and unemployed, the people that flocked to Mr. Ahmadinejad's populist campaign.

"I think the reformists are definitely to some extent in retreat, and I think they acknowledge that, because they've lost the lower classes," he said. "When Khatemi was coming up in his big victories, he had the lower classes. But the reformists sort of lost it with esoteric ideology and not talking enough to address economic issues. They stayed at the level of press freedom and how women are dressed and things that the lower classes don't really rate that heavily in terms of priorities."

Azadeh Moaveni, the Iranian-American author of Lipstick Jihad, which looks at social reform among the young in the Khatemi years, says the movement is not a single entity, but a loose amalgamation of groups and factions. Speaking from Tehran, where she is currently researching another book, Ms. Moaveni says the factions agree on the overall strategic goal of reform, but have sharp differences over the tactics to achieve change.

"Some believe in working within the confines of the constitution and the legal system," she said. "Some are secularists. Some support a referendum. It's just a very motley crew with different sensibilities and ideologies and tactics. And there's no real coherent organizing leader or even group within them to be able to agree and build on consensus."

Mr. Ahmadinejad has pledged not to infringe on Iranians' freedom. But Shaul Bakhash, professor of history at George Mason University in Virginia and a fellow at Saban Center for Middle East Studies, says Mr. Ahmadinejad and the reformists have very different views on what constitutes freedom.

"But 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 said. "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."

Reformists fear that President Ahmadinejad may try to roll back even the social reforms achieved during the Khatemi years, such as the modest relaxation in enforcing dress codes for women. But Mr. Bakhash says the new president may run into resistance if he tries to undo social reforms.

"It would be very difficult in Iran's present conditions to institute a crackdown on the social freedoms that Iranian youth and women have secured," added Mr. Bakhash. "So we might see renewed attempts, as we have seen from time to time in Iran, to crack down in the social sphere, but, as in the past, such a crackdown is very unlikely to succeed."

Mr. Ahmadinejad is the first president of Iran since 1981 who is not an Islamic cleric. However, his conservative viewpoints won him the support of both hard-line clerics and the Revolutionary Guard, in whose ranks Mr. Ahmadinejad served during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.

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