West braced for harder stance from Iran

TEHRAN - President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory completes a conservative grip on Iran's main levers of power that will likely lead to greater tension with the West and a more isolationist economic policy.

But a tougher Iranian stance on its controversial nuclear programme and other issues will emerge only slowly through Iran's system of clerical rule that gives supreme leader Ali Ayatollah Khamenei the final say in state affairs, analysts say.

And they say the latest conservative victory will expose internal rifts in the conservative camp and may encourage more political pragmatism because they no longer have reformists under outgoing President Mohammad Khatami to blame for failures.

Ahmadinejad, who swept to victory over moderate cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, takes over in August from Khatami, whose own policies of political reforms and detente with the West were ambushed by hardline bodies.

"Over time, we will see a hardening of the [Iran's] position. It will not be immediate," said Iranian analyst Mahmoud Alinejad, adding it would involve a more chauvinistic foreign policy and a focus on domestic, not foreign, investment.

"It will be a policy that has the danger of confrontation although there are pragmatic people who might try to prevent that."

The former special forces officer of the Revolutionary Guards was expected to outline his plans today at his first news conference since the election.

"Our main goal today is to create an exemplary, advanced and powerful Islamic nation," he said in a radio address.

In a campaign where Rafsanjani advocated better ties with the United States, Ahmadinejad had said relations with Washington were not a cure-all for Iran.

"This all but closes the door for a breakthrough in US-Iran relations," said Karim Sadjadpour, Tehran-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

The vote was a crushing blow for Rafsanjani, 70, who has been at the forefront of politics since the 1979 revolution and was hoping to regain the post he held from 1989 to 1997.

He complained yesterday that dirty tricks had been used against him but said he would not lodge a formal complaint.

"I do not intend to complain about the elections to judges who have shown they either do not want or are not able to do anything. I will only complain to God."

Ahmadinejad's victory was the latest by a new breed of hardline politicians, many of them former Revolutionary Guardsmen, who won local council and parliamentary elections in 2003 and 2004 amid disillusionment with the slow pace of change and frustration among the poor that their lot had not improved.

Like Ahmadinejad, the hardliners are fiercely loyal to Khamenei and the religious principles of the Islamic revolution.

Hardliners already control the other key bodies such as Parliament, judiciary, the Army and a powerful constitutional watchdog. With the presidency now falling to a hardliner, it gives conservatives a clean sweep.

But conservatives in office will have to assume more of the blame for any political or economic failings with reformists losing their powerbase after Khatami's departure.

"There will be more division exposed among the conservatives, that will be one of the positive points, because it will give room for reformists to continue," Alinejad said.

He said reformists, who had focused on social and political freedoms, would need to appeal more effectively to the poor, who had voted for Ahmadinejad in droves after Khatami's reforming efforts failed to deliver jobs and better living standards.

Ahmadinejad has said that his Government would not buckle in negotiations with the West, including over Iran's nuclear programme which Tehran says is to produce electricity but which the US and Europe suspect is to make atomic bombs.

"I think Ahmadinejad is less amenable to compromise on the nuclear issue, but it is unclear how much influence he will have on it," said Sadjadpour.

Nuclear negotiations are handled by Iran's National Security Council, which is answerable to the supreme leader.

Analysts say he will also face pressure from the Revolutionary Guards and Basij religious militia, the guardians of Islamic revolutionary ideals, who opponents say came out in force to vote for Ahmadinejad.

Analysts said he will be pulled by forces of pragmatism and radicalism and may opt for moderate pragmatism."

- REUTERS

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