Iran Hardliner Courts Reformers

The winner of Iran's presidential election, whose landslide victory dealt a setback to reformers, said Saturday he seeks to make his country a "modern, advanced, powerful, and Islamic" model for the world.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's taped statement, broadcast on state-run radio, appeared aimed at easing worries that his ultraconservative views would clash with Iran's attempts to expand its economy and international ties. Ahmadinejad, however, made no mention of any new policies regarding the social reforms opposed by some of his supporters.

"Let's convert competition to friendship. We are all a nation and a big family," he said in apparent reference to the rifts between liberals and hard-liners in Iran that deepened in the campaign for Friday's runoff election.

"My mission is creating a role model of a modern, advanced, powerful and Islamic society," he said in the short message broadcast shortly after the announcement of final results sealed his stunning defeat of moderate statesman Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The results, announced on state television, gave Ahmadinejad, currently Tehran's mayor, 61.6 percent of the vote over Rafsanjani's 35.9 percent. The rest of the ballots were deemed invalid.

Nearly 28 million ballots were cast, or more than 59 percent of Iran's approximately 47 million eligible voters. In last week's election, the turnout was close to 63 percent.

The victory gives conservatives control of Iran's two highest elected offices--the presidency and parliament — enabling the non-elected theocracy to rule with a freer hand.

Real power in Iran lies with the country's clerics and their supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who can overrule elected officials. But reformers, who lost parliament in elections last year, had been hoping to retain some hand in government to preserve the greater social freedoms they've been able to win, such as looser dress codes, more mixing between the sexes and openings to the West.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore indicated the result would not change the U.S. view of Iran, and what it considered to be a fundamentally flawed election that refused to accept scores of candidates, particularly women.

"With the conclusion of the elections in Iran, we have seen nothing that sways us from our view that Iran is out of step with the rest of the region in the currents of freedom and liberty that have been so apparent in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon," Moore said.

Ahmadinejad supporters will go to mosques to "thank God for this great victory," said his campaign manager Ali Akbar Javanfekr. He said no public celebrations were planned.

Ahmadinejad is expected to start consultations soon on his Cabinet. He will be watched to see if he chooses clerics such as Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a firebrand who has been considered for the Culture Ministry, which controls publications as well as the arts.

Ahmadinejad, 49, campaigned as a champion of the poor, a message that resonated with voters in a country where some estimates put unemployment as high as 30 percent. He struck the image of a simple working man, casting Rafsanjani as a wealthy member of the ruling elite.

"The real nuclear bomb that Iran has is its unemployed young people," said Ali Pourassad, after voting for Ahmadinejad at a polling station set up in the courtyard of a mosque in the middle-class south of Tehran. "If nothing is done to create jobs for our young people, we will have an explosion on the streets."

But Ahmadinejad also vowed to return Iran to the principles of the Islamic Revolution more than a quarter-century ago. Such comments and reports about his inner circle of supporters--members of the Revolutionary Guard, the vigilantes who enforce public dress codes and some of the most hard-line clerics in Iran's theocracy--frightened Iran's reformers.

Ahmadinejad (pronounced "Aah-MA-dee-ni-JAHD") had not been expected even to make the runoff. But he squeaked ahead of his rivals into the No. 2 spot in last week's first-round vote. There were accusations that Revolutionary Guards and vigilantes intimidated voters to sway the vote in his favor.

During Friday's voting, the reformist-led Interior Ministry reported "interference" at some Tehran polling stations. A ministry worker who was at a polling station reminding officials to watch for violations was arrested after he got in an argument with representatives of one of the two candidates, ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said.

An Interior Ministry observers' group reported 300 complaints of violations in Tehran, said group leader Ibrahim Razini.

In the eyes of most, Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989-97, represented the status quo. Backers felt confident he would continue the many social changes introduced by outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, including youth-supported freedoms such as dating, music, and colorful headscarves for women.

Rafsanjani may retain his seat on the Expediency Council, which mediates between parliament and the ruling clerics. But he appears to be finished as a politician, having already been humbled in 2000 when he failed to win a seat in parliament.

Ahmadinejad's surprising strength alarmed moderates and business groups at home and was watched with concern by international officials. He is expected to be a tough negotiating partner in Iran's talks with Europe over its nuclear program. Iran says the program is to produce energy but the United States contends nuclear weapons are the goal.

Ahmadinejad has criticized Iran's current negotiators as making too many concessions to Europe, particularly in freezing the uranium enrichment program, and he was expected to put Iran's nuclear program into the hands of some avowed anti-Western clerics.

The pragmatic Rafsanjani appeared more willing to negotiate on the nuclear program. But a Foreign Ministry spokesman Friday underlined that the suspension is temporary and that enrichment will eventually be restarted no matter who wins the election.

But for many Iranians, the biggest issue was an economy that has languished despite Iran's oil and gas riches. Iran's official unemployment rate is 16 percent, but unofficially it is closer to 30 percent, and the country has to create 800,000 jobs a year just to stand still. In the fall, another million young people are expected to enter the work force.

Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, presented himself as the humble alternative to Rafsanjani, whose family runs a large business empire. He has promised Iran's underclass higher wages, more development funds for rural areas, expanded health insurance and more social benefits for women.