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Saturday, June 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fundamentalist's victory signals end to Iran reform

Los Angeles Times

TEHRAN, Iran — The mayor of Tehran won Iran's presidency in a landslide yesterday, using support from the country's ruling clerical hierarchy and its vast military to restore total control of the government to Islamic fundamentalists and end an eight-year experiment in reform.

Partial returns released by the official news agency today gave Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a political newcomer, more than 61 percent of the vote in his runoff contest with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. Officials said the turnout was about 48 percent of the 47 million eligible voters, well short of the 63 percent reported in the first round of voting a week ago.

Voters divided by class and ideology had gone to the polls in a battle for Iran's future, with many poor favoring the fundamentalist mayor who has vowed to end corruption and bring back revolutionary fervor. More affluent and liberal Iranians had regarded Rafsanjani, a centrist, as the last hope for reforms.

After being roundly rebuffed by voters in the past two presidential elections, conservatives regained control by painting the reformist camp represented by outgoing President Mohammad Khatami as corrupt, ineffectual and out of touch with ordinary people.

They were also helped by a trend among many opponents of the Islamic republic's religious elite to reject reform as impossible in a country where the constitution gives the unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, control of the main levers of power, including the judiciary and the armed forces.

The hard-liner's victory would appear to rule out any early improvement in relations between Iran and the West, and could increase chances of confrontation with the United States over the country's nuclear program, which Ahmadinejad has praised.

Unlike Rafsanjani, the mayor had said improved relations with the United States would not be a priority. He also has voiced disdain for Western-style democracy.

"We did not have a revolution in order to have democracy," he said last week. In Washington, D.C., State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore reiterated criticism that U.S. officials had leveled at Iran before the first round of voting.

"With the conclusion of the elections in Iran, we have seen nothing that dissuades us from our view that Iran is out of step with the rest of the region and the currents of freedom and liberty that have been so apparent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon," she said. "These elections were flawed from the inception by the decision of an unelected few to deny the applications of over 1,000 candidates, including all 93 women."

Before polls closed, there were complaints of irregularities at some Tehran polling stations as the two sides clashed over the alleged presence of Islamic militiamen.

Rafsanjani, 70, is a wheeler-dealer millionaire mullah who has been part of the country's ruling clique since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. President from 1989-1997, he has since been head of the Expediency Council, which resolves conflicts inside the government.

Long known for political wiles and pragmatism, he styled himself a reformer and has said only he could save the limited freedom of speech and behavior allowed during Khatami's tenure. Opponents, however, accused him of lavish living and putting close relatives into lucrative posts.

Ahmadinejad (pronounced "Aah-MA-dee-ni-JAHD"), 48, has never held an elected office and was the appointed mayor of Tehran for just two years. A former Revolutionary Guard and instructor to the "basiji" militia, he talks tough toward Iran's enemies and promises to reverse what he views as the watering down of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's militancy. He has a strong following in the military and the bazaars and among the clergy.

His foes fear he will take the country backward toward the terror-filled days just after the revolution, increase the segregation of the sexes in public, and bring on isolation, economic decline and a heightened risk of confrontation with the West over human rights and nuclear weapons.

Many Iranians, disgruntled by the country's so-called "religious democracy," were unhappy with both candidates.

"We don't believe in any of them," said Kourouch, a 20-year-old in southern Tehran near the old Jewish quarter who asked that his last name not be published. Effat Barghi, 45, a housewife who didn't vote in the first round, went to the polling station yesterday because she was alarmed at the prospect of hard-liners gaining any more control of Iran.

"We don't want to be put under pressure about Islamic covering again," she said. "I want to see my daughter have more freedom."

But in the southern part of the capital where the urban poor live, employees of a fruit shop said they had voted for the Tehran mayor, who has pledged to provide loans so young people can get married, cap housing costs and improve pensions and health benefits.

"He's good, because he is a fundamentalist. He's pious," said Hady Akbari, 17.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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