- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

TEHRAN — Tehran’s arch-conservative mayor capped a stunning political rise yesterday to claim second place in Iran’s presidential race and will face one of the nation’s most famous statesmen in a head-to-head vote.

Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — a 49-year-old former student radical backed by Iran’s ruling clerics and their military guardians — was considered a long-shot challenger in Friday’s election. But he rode to the presidential runoff on his popularity among Iran’s hard-line factions and key groups such as the elite Revolutionary Guards.

One rival, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, accused Islamic vigilantes and soldiers of “intimidating” voters to back Mr. Ahmadinejad — who slipped past Mr. Karroubi 19.48 percent to 19.3 percent. Mr. Karroubi’s aides demanded an official probe and warned they could unleash street demonstrations.

The top vote-getter, former president and political veteran Hashemi Rafsanjani, was left shaken with just slightly more than 21 percent of the ballots. He will face Mr. Ahmadinejad on Friday in Iran’s first runoff elections. To win outright, a candidate needed 50 percent of all votes cast.

The top pro-reform candidate, former Culture Minister Mostafa Moin, was humbled by a distant fifth-place finish. Mr. Moin, considered the political heir of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, was billed as Mr. Rafsanjani’s most credible rival.

But his bid was steamrolled by conservatives at the polls despite the respectable 62.7 voter turnout that defied a boycott drive by groups opposing the Islamic system — which comprised a strong part of Mr. Moin’s bloc.

“Our failure … doesn’t mean reforms have come to an end or Iran doesn’t need change,” said Elaheh Koolaee, a top aide for Mr. Moin.

The snub, said Tehran-based political analyst Reza Fathi, was also a parting shot to Mr. Khatami’s eight years in office.

Mr. Khatami managed to lift many of the social restrictions imposed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution such as bans on dating and Western music. But he failed in his main missions: to weaken the all-powerful controls of the theocracy and improve the stumbling economy. Despite vast oil and gas wealth, many people earn less than $2,000 a year, inflation runs above 20 percent and some analysts place the jobless rate near 40 percent.

Mr. Rafsanjani, 70, is a mix of political cunning and business power as nominal head of a family empire that includes an airline and a large cut of the nation’s $400 million pistachio export business. He served as president from 1989-97 — bowing out because of a two-term limit — and then moving into the inner circles of the theocracy.

Mr. Ahmadinejad draws his support from Iran’s ultraconservative wings such as veterans of the 1980-89 war with Iraq and the civilian “basiji” militia with ties to the ruling establishment.

Mr. Rafsanjani has suggested he would be open to greater dialogue with the United States. But Mr. Ahmadinejad told a press conference yesterday that he could not foresee improved ties with any country that “seeks hostility” against Iran.

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