Sunday, June 26, 2005

Rumsfeld dismisses "mock" Iranian elections

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed as illegitimate the landslide presidential election victory in Iran by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran's hard-line mayor.

"There were over 1,000 candidates that were disqualified -- that weren't even allowed to run," Rumsfeld told the Fox News Sunday television program.

"So the fact that they had a mock election and elected a hardliner ought not come to any surprise to anybody, because all the other people were told they couldn't run -- it's against the law.

Rumsfeld predicted that Iranians eventually will become disenchanted by Ahmadinejad.

"I don't know much about this fellow. He's young. I've read backgrounds on him. But he is no friend of democracy. He's no friend of freedom," Rumsfeld said.

"He is a person who is very much supportive of the current ayatollahs, who are telling the people of that country how to live their lives. And my guess is over time, the young people and the women will find him, as well as his masters, unacceptable."

EU concerned for Iran nuclear talks after election

The European Union has reacted nervously to Iran president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, amid fears he may resist international efforts to check the country's nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad, a hardline conservative, has insisted that Iran will not give up its nuclear technology, but said he would continue talks with the EU aimed at ensuring any nuclear program is purely peaceful.

Franco Frattini, European commissioner for justice and security issues, said the EU could "freeze" talks with Iran unless Ahmadinejad makes an clear commitment to continue discussions with the bloc's three biggest countries on the nuclear issue.

"The reformists have suffered a worrying defeat," said Frattini, a former Italian foreign minister who is in charge of mostly internal issues and not the EU's external relations.

"From the new President Ahmadinejad we are waiting for clear words on human rights and the nuclear issue. But if the replies are negative, the European Union will have no choice but to freeze dialogue with Iran," Frattini told Italy's La Repubblica daily.

Later on Sunday, in his first news conference since winning Friday's presidential election, Ahmadinejad said he intended to keep talking with Europe.

"With preserving national interests and by emphasising the right of the Iranian nation for using peaceful nuclear technology, we will continue the talks," he said.

Iran needed nuclear technology "for energy and medical purposes" he said. "We shall carry on with it."

Victory for a religious hardliner in Iran

Was it a backlash by Iran’s devoutly Muslim poor against a corrupt elite? Or was it a massive fraud perpetrated on the people by the hardline clerics? Perhaps it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, the margin of victory for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the second round of Iran’s presidential election, on Friday June 24th, was striking. Mr Ahmadinejad, the mayor of the capital, Tehran, and a hardline religious conservative, garnered around 62% of the vote, despite having gone almost unnoticed in the field of seven candidates who had contested the first round of voting, a week earlier.

It was a crushing defeat for Mr Ahmadinejad’s opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a powerful former president (1989-97) and former speaker of the Iranian parliament—who had seemed the favourite from the moment he decided to run. Mr Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative who had restyled himself as a cautious reformer, had been expected to face an out-and-out moderniser in the run-off. Thus it had looked possible, whatever the outcome, that Iran’s modest economic and social reforms of recent years would continue if not accelerate, and that its relations with the West—America, especially—might improve. Immediately after the first round, in which Mr Ahmadinejad came second and thus won a place in the run-off, it looked possible that reformists’ votes would transfer to Mr Rafsanjani and guarantee his victory.

So what happened? At the end of the first round, one of the defeated reformists, Mehdi Karrubi, complained that the vote had been fixed. There were indeed some suspicious circumstances: for example, in South Khorasan province, home to many disgruntled Sunni Muslims, the official turnout was an improbable 95%; yet Mr Ahmadinejad, the candidate most associated with the assertive Shia Islamism of Iran’s clerical regime, won more than a third of the votes there. And while Friday’s second-round vote was still going on, Mr Rafsanjani’s aides were complaining of “massive irregularities”, accusing the Basij religious militia—in which Mr Ahmadinejad used to be an instructor—of intimidating voters to support their man.

However, whatever the extent of any vote-rigging, it seems unlikely that it was the only reason why Mr Rafsanjani did so badly. Conservative-minded Iranians, especially the devoutly Muslim poor, seem to have warmed to the austere Mr Ahmadinejad because of his modest lifestyle, his personal honesty and his reassuringly insular vision.

Mr Ahmadinejad presented himself as a committed follower of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and he pledged to put the interests of the poor at the top of his priorities. In this he seems successfully to have tapped popular resentment at the country’s elite, widely held to be enriching itself corruptly. The wheeler-dealing and allegedly highly wealthy Mr Rafsanjani is seen as the very embodiment of that elite. Whereas Mr Rafsanjani argued for improved relations with America and increased foreign investment in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad insisted there was no need for any rapprochement with the “Great Satan”, as official Iranian demonology labels the superpower.

From the Koran to quantum physics

Iran is changing. A society once closed to the outside world has acquired a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for cutting-edge ideas. The number of publications by Iranian scientists in international journals has quadrupled over the past decade. Young people in particular want more Kuhn and less Khomeini. And they voted overwhelmingly against hardline candidates in last week's elections.

But what about the clerics who have led Iran since 1979? How comfortable are they with modern science and technology? Do they oppose it? Can they learn to live with it? Do they believe it should be "Islamicised"?

Western ways of thinking and doing have long held a fascination for Iran's religious leaders, from before the Islamic revolution of 1979 that deposed the Shah. When the Shah banned Ayatollah Khomeini's speeches, for example, his supporters distributed them on audio cassettes in the hundreds of thousands. Similarly, desktop publishing was eagerly adopted to produce glossy magazines extolling the virtues of post-revolution Iran.

Nuke Talks Stance Divides Iran Candidates

Iran's stance in delicate nuclear talks with the West is shaping up as a key issue dividing the two candidates who face each other in Friday's presidential runoff — and U.S. and European officials are watching closely.

It also is a top campaign issue for Iranians themselves, who view the nuclear program as a source of both national pride and worrying tension with the United States and Europe.

Ultraconservative candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the 49-year-old mayor of Tehran, has indicated he will push for a tougher position at the talks if he becomes president. But key nuclear officials have said they'd like to see the country's top job go to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, a former president with an experienced hand.

The United States accuses Iran of using a peaceful nuclear program as a cover to develop an atomic bomb. Iran maintains its program is peaceful and aimed only at generating electricity.

Ahmadinejad, in comments that drew sharp criticism from the Foreign Ministry, accused Iran's nuclear negotiators Monday of being weak and bowing to European pressure at the negotiation table. He also told a news conference last week he could not foresee improved ties with any country that "seeks hostility" against Iran, a reference to the United States.

Some Ahmadinejad supporters, including the hard-line Students' Islamic Association, want the government to seek nuclear weapons to "deter the United States from threatening or attacking us."

"We've had enough of waiting for Westerners to decide about us," said Mansour Hesami, 37, who has a portrait of Ahmadinejad in his dry cleaning shop. "We have to resume our nuclear activity as soon as possible after Ahmadinejad comes to power."

Hard-Line Tehran Mayor Gains Support

From his childhood as the impoverished son of a blacksmith, to his youth as a student activist against the shah of Iran, to his manhood as a soldier fighting in Iraq, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a fierce attachment to Islam and to the teachings of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Now the 48-year-old appointed mayor of Tehran appears to have the backing of much of the military, fundamentalists and loyalists of the country's supreme leader in a runoff election Friday with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani. If Ahmadinejad wins, it would be seen as a victory for the most fundamentalist wing of Iranian politics and a devastating setback for reformers.

Machinations continued between the two sides Monday, but the closure of at least two reform newspapers that had planned to publish a complaint questioning the legitimacy of Friday's first round of voting seemed to signal a tactical defeat for Ahmadinejad's opponents.

Other evidence that the Islamic Revolution's most ardent devotees were prevailing came when the Guardian Council, after a cursory recount of a sampling of ballot boxes in four cities, ratified last week's vote. The council, an unelected constitutional watchdog body, ordered the runoff to go forward, in effect shrugging off the reformists' protests.

Also, the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, angrily rebuked the cleric who placed third in the poll for daring to allege publicly that the election result had been manipulated.