Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ahmadinejad Victory Sparks Clashes, Heralds Tension

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second presidential term, heralding new tensions with the U.S. over the country’s nuclear program, as his opponents charged fraud and clashed with police on the streets of Tehran.

Ahmadinejad took almost 63 percent of the June 12 vote, according to official results announced yesterday, with his main rival, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, winning around 34 percent. Mousavi vowed he “won’t surrender” in the face of “numerous” irregularities.

The Iranian president, accused by rival candidates of unnecessarily stoking tensions with the West, may see success at the ballot box as a vindication of his stance. That could be a setback for President Barack Obama’s policy of engaging Iran in dialogue, rather than ostracizing it, as a means to ensure the Islamic republic doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons.

“It will be tougher under a resurgent Ahmadinejad, who strongly believes that his toughness and defiance in foreign policy have brought dividends,” said Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran who is now an analyst at Chatham House, a research institute in London.

He said electoral fraud is “the best working hypothesis” to explain Ahmadinejad’s landslide win, though sustained protest against the result is unlikely because it would be viewed as “a coup attempt” and suppressed. “People will think twice before going up against the security forces,” he said.

Opposition Leaders Arrested

At least 10 leaders of two groups that backed Mousavi were arrested, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Rajab Ali Mazroei, an official of the Islamic Iran Participation Front. The Front and the Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organization were the groups targeted.

Former parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi and Behzad Nabavi, a former deputy parliament speaker, were among those held, AFP said, and Mohammad-Reza Khatami, a brother of former President Mohammad Khatami, was probably detained also.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. is “waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the administration is watching developments “including reports of irregularities.”

Arms Race

The Obama administration has concluded that it will have to continue its efforts to engage Iran and will have to deal with Ahmadinejad, an administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The U.S. has fundamental interests at stake, including preventing a Middle East arms race, which requires pressing for Iran to abandon any pursuit of nuclear weapons, said the official.

Mousavi, 67, who called during the campaign for a more conciliatory approach to the West and acknowledged the shift in U.S. policy under Obama, claimed victory after polls closed on June 12, shortly before state-run media said Ahmadinejad had won.

Ahmadinejad, 52, had the backing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader who has the final say on all affairs of state. Khamenei moved to endorse the incumbent’s victory and discourage protests yesterday, describing the election as a “glittering event” and called for a day of “kindness and patience,” in comments read out on state television.

Claiming an electoral fix, Mousavi’s supporters yesterday clashed with ranks of anti-riot police guarding the Interior Ministry in Tehran, which served as the election headquarters.

Tear Gas, Batons

Protesters set fire to motorbikes belonging to police, who used tear gas and batons to disperse a crowd of several thousand chanting “fraud last night” and “Mousavi, Mousavi, get my vote back.”

“Iran belongs to its people and not to fraudsters,” Mousavi said in a statement on his Web site.

In a televised address last night, Ahmadinejad said he’d won a “great victory” in elections that were entirely “free.” He pledged to combat corruption and said the government must also tackle inflation and unemployment.

The official results “raise questions about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad’s victory,” said Professor Anoush Ehteshami, a lecturer at the Centre for Iranian Studies at Durham University in northeastern England.

According to the official results, Ahmadinejad won 80 percent of the vote in Mousavi’s home town and former parliamentary Speaker Mehdi Karrubi, another candidate, got a “miniscule” proportion of votes in Lorestan, from where he comes, Ehteshami said.

Rural Support

About 39 million of the 46.2 million eligible voters cast their ballots in the election, the Interior Ministry said. Turnout was a record 85 percent, Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli said. There were no international monitors.

Ahmadinejad’s campaign targeted voters in the more religiously inclined countryside, where about a third of Iran’s 70 million people live. Since taking office in 2005, he has visited each of the country’s 30 provinces twice.

Press coverage of the campaign may have underestimated Ahmadinejad’s support in the countryside because “there was a concentration of reporters in Tehran,” said Ilan Berman, vice- president of the American Foreign Policy Council.

Rural voters helped Ahmadinejad win a surprise victory four years ago on a promise to redistribute oil wealth. During the campaign, Karrubi and Mousavi accused him of squandering windfall gains from higher oil prices. They argued that the government’s handouts and subsidies fuelled inflation that reached 24 percent in January, and helped push the unemployment rate to 10.5 percent.

Subsidy Spending

Spending on subsidies for goods such as sugar, wheat and cooking oils rose more than 50 percent from 2005 to 2007. With crude prices down about half from last year’s peak of $147 a barrel, Iran -- holder of the second-largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia -- faces widening budget deficits, the International Monetary Fund has warned.

Most of the region’s financial markets were closed yesterday as the election results emerged. The benchmark Tadawul stock index in Saudi Arabia, one of the few Middle Eastern markets open for trading, rose 2.6 percent as investors focused on expectations the global recession may be easing.

Israel said the re-election of Ahmadinejad showed the “enhanced” threat posed by Iran. The Islamic Hamas group, which rules the Gaza Strip and is supported by Iran, welcomed the outcome, saying it was a sign of “wide support” for Ahmadinejad’s policies.

‘Nuclear Proliferation’

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband noted in a statement “the concerns about the counting of ballots expressed by two of the candidates” and said the priority was “that Iran engages with the concerns of the world community, above all on the issues of nuclear proliferation.”

The French foreign ministry also released a statement saying it had taken note of the protestations over electoral fraud. The EU Presidency said it was “concerned about alleged irregularities during the election process.”

While key policy issues including Iran’s nuclear plans are ultimately decided by Khamenei, Mousavi said he was open to talks with the U.S. that would ease three decades of hostility between the countries, and promised unspecified confidence- building measures to allay international concerns about the atomic program, though the nuclear effort would be continued.

Iran is under three sets of United Nations sanctions over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, a process that can generate fuel for a nuclear power reactor or a weapon. The country increased uranium production during the last three months and continued to stonewall inspectors investigating whether it is concealing a weapons program, the United Nation’s nuclear agency said on June 5.

‘Reverse Gear’

The U.S. and major allies including Israel say the nuclear program is a cover for the development of a weapon. The government in Tehran denies the charge, insisting the program is peaceful and designed to generate electricity.

Ahmadinejad has called the nuclear program a “train” in which Iran has “thrown away the reverse gear and brakes.” He further worsened Iran’s relations with the West by questioning Israel’s right to exist and the extent of the Holocaust.

The government in Tehran has supported militant Islamist movements such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The U.S. also accused Iran of arming militant groups in neighboring Iraq that have killed American soldiers.

Now that Ahmadinejad has been re-elected, it will be “even harder for those who are skeptical in the U.S. Congress about Iran to suspend their disbelief, to agree to make concessions,” Dalton said. “But at the end of the day, it’s the only game in town.”