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Iran: Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- Fascist, Or Man Of The People?

Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line mayor of Tehran, is one of the two candidates competing in the second round of Iran’s presidential election on 24 June. His supporters praise him for living a simple life and being a man of the people with good management skills. They also say he is a true follower of Islamic values. But his opponents call him a "fascist “ who favors segregation of the sexes in public and say that his presidency would stop the reform process.

Prague, 22 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- There is one thing on which the supporters and opponents of Mahmud Ahmadinejad agree: his impeccable revolutionary credentials.

Ahmadinejad, a former governor and now the major of Tehran, claims to be one of the founders of the Islamic Society of Students. During the Iran-Iraq war he joined Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and reportedly participated in covert operations. He was also an instructor with the Basij volunteer militia responsible for enforcing Islamic codes.

Ahmadinejad -- who holds a Ph.D in civil engineering -- was relatively unknown when he announced his candidacy for president. He kept a low profile during the campaign and few gave him any chance of success. His close second-place finish to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a shock to many Iranians and Western observers.

Many expressed skepticism about the outcome and accused military forces of using illegal measures to back Ahmadinejad's campaign.

At a press conference the day after the 17 June election, Ahmadinejad credited his success to his links with the people.

"For me it was not a big surprise. I know the culture of Iranians. I know how great are the people of this country. And I know that I have developed good relations with the people," Ahmadinejad said.

Ahmadinejad is said to have the support of Islamic hard-liners and the religious poor.

But his military background and his controversial actions as the mayor of the capital have caused trepidation among many other Iranian citizens. They are concerned that an Ahmadinejad presidency would lead to a clampdown on the already limited freedoms they enjoy now.

Shortly after becoming mayor of Tehran in April 2003, Ahmadinejad imposed a system in his office building of segregated elevators for men and women. He shut down popular fast-food restaurants and converted several cultural centers into prayer halls.

He banned pictures of international football star David Beckham from appearing on advertising billboards. He also proposed that some of the soldiers killed during the Iran-Iraq war be buried in one of Tehran’s main squares.

Some critics and reformers have warned his election would lead to a decline in the human rights situation. They say that Ahmadinejad's rise to power could result in the creation of a "political-military rule" and the "domination of Taliban-style fascism."

Jalal Jalalizadeh is an Iranian Kurd and a former member of Iran’s parliament. He says he believes an Ahmadinejad win would deal a blow to freedom of expression.

“The people of Iran have many economic problems, but an open political atmosphere -- for criticism and also for cultural activities -- is also important today. Iranian people, including Kurds, need an open atmosphere in which to voice their criticism of the regime. I think an Ahmadinejad victory will stifle that atmosphere for all people, especially for minorities,” Jalalizadeh said.

Ahmadinejad's supporters dismiss such concerns and say his presidency would not put civil liberties at risk. Ahmadinejad has said that "real freedom" can only be found within the parameters of Iran's Islamic establishment.
"For me it was not a big surprise. I know the culture of Iranians. I know how great are the people of this country. And I know that I have developed good relations with the people" -- Mahmud Ahmadinejad

Mohammad Hossein Jaafarian, a conservative columnist, says Ahmadenijad's opponents are waging a campaign to tarnish his image.

"This image by the opponents of Mr. Ahmadinejad in very unfair. They have become so terrified, and all without reason. I feel that [the reformists] want to prevent their rival from taking power at any price. It does not mean that [Ahmadinejad] will follow policies that might cause limitations. From what we have seen, he has an open view on cultural issues. It is not as [critics] say," Jaafarian said.

Ahmadinejad has said that if he wins the runoff election, he will do his best to serve the poor, farmers, and people in rural areas.

He has also said that he would continue dialogue with Europe over Iran's nuclear program.

"We will continue the current policies of the Islamic Republic. In principle, dialogue with Europe, Asia, and Africa is within the framework of our foreign policy. And of course, in order to defend the rights of our nation, we will continue the [nuclear] dialogue [with Europe]," Ahmadinejad said.

Regarding ties with the United States, Ahmadinejad has said that relations with Washington are not the key to people’s problems.

(Radio Farda correspondent Siavosh Ardalan contributed to this report.)

See also:

A New Generation And The Drift To The Right

Hashemi-Rafsanjani Says Vote For Him Is Vote Against Extremism

Ethnicity And Regional Interests Play Out In Vote

For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"