Iran's new hard-liner

July 01, 2005

WITH THE surprise election of Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran's new president, hard-liners tightened their hold on the Islamic republic. And secure in their rule, they have no interest in tamping down their nuclear ambitions or seeking rapprochement with the United States. President-elect Ahmadinejad, who defeated a former president and political pragmatist, made that emphatically clear this week in his first public remarks after the election.

His candor should make it easier for the Bush administration to rail against the Iranian regime, a sponsor of terrorism, and perhaps rally support for sanctions against it. But Mr. Ahmadinejad's election complicates the White House's desire for a democratic Middle East and challenges the administration to determine how to support Iranian reformers.

In a presidential runoff, Mr. Ahmadinejad trounced the perceived favorite, Hashemi Rafsanjani, an Islamic cleric who was not opposed to reopening dialogue with the United States. The son of a blacksmith and an engineer by training, Mr. Ahmadinejad won with the support of Iran's rural and poor communities and on his pledge to redistribute Iran's oil wealth. The economy and unemployment were the issues, obviously not rapprochement with the West.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is a bureaucrat with little foreign policy experience but the backing of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His Islamic credentials are real - he came of age during the Iranian revolution and reportedly was one of those who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Mr. Ahmadinejad has reaffirmed Iran's right to develop nuclear technology and reiterated the regime line that it would be for peaceful purposes only. And while he said Iran would continue to negotiate with a European team on its nuclear capability, don't expect any softening of its position.

When talks resume in the fall, the U.S.-backed British, French and German negotiators should put forth their best proposal - economic incentives in return for assistance with nuclear technology and inspections - and be done with it.

The United States and Europe must try to exploit the regime's vulnerability on economic issues in order to win concessions on its nuclear program, but resolving that dispute may not be possible under the present regime. The answer may be to help the demoralized, defeated reformers who twice elected the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who was never able to win concessions from the conservative mullahs in control in Iran. The challenge for the Bush administration and its allies is to devise a strategy to advance the reformist agenda in Iran and promote change from within without appearing to promote regime change.

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