Iran's hardline leader is urged to calm West's nuclear fears

Landslide victory of hardliner in presidential election dismays reformists, unsettles Europe and 'humiliates' US
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The Independent Online

Britain and its European partners yesterday urged Iran's hardline president-elect, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to reassure the world about his country's nuclear programme as the landslide victory of the self-described fundamentalist created fresh uncertainty in the Middle East.

Mr Ahmadinejad has pledged to defend Iran's right to full uranium-enrichment technology, which Western countries believe could help the Islamic republic to develop a nuclear bomb. "They will not allow us to progress easily, but we should not surrender to their will," he said.

Yesterday the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said he hoped that under Mr Ahmadinejad's presidency, "Iran will take early steps to address international concerns about its nuclear programme", a message echoed by France and Germany, which have worked with Britain to persuade Tehran to allay suspicions that it is seeking nuclear weapons. But the Bush administration, which has taken a tougher line, was told by Iran's supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that the election result was a "profound humiliation" for the US.

Washington angered Iran by questioning the legitimacy of the election before the first round, and a State Department spokeswoman said yesterday: "We remain sceptical that the Iranian regime is interested in addressing either the legitimate desires of its own people, or the concerns of the broader international community." Mr Straw said there were "serious deficiencies" in the election, noting many reformists, and all women candidates, had been barred from standing.

But Mr Ahmadinejad won more than 60 per cent of the vote in Friday's run-off against the former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. He drew 17 million votes, including many former supporters of the current reformist President, Mohammed Khatami, even though he is an opponent of social liberalisation.

In another area of significance to the international community, Mr Ahmadinejad said oil policy in Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer, needed to be clarified. "The country's biggest capital today is the oil industry and our oil reserves," he said. "The atmosphere ruling over our deals, production and exports is not clear. We should clarify it." Other priorities for his government, which will take office in August, included "correcting the banking system" and "solving young people's immediate problems".

A more strident tone could derail attempts to promote further détente with the West, an ambition the new President has little time for. Washington accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and suppressing democracy. In the former revolutionary guardsman, who was last week praised by a hardline journal for aiding "martyrdom operations", it sees the epitome of all these fears. Bewildered reformists are struggling to come to terms with the scale of their defeat and wondering how the enormous popular mandates President Khatami won in 1997 and 2001 could be so spectacularly reversed. "It's going to become very bad now," said Reza, a young trader. "The people voting must have been brainwashed."

Reformists fear the new President will instigate a return to the more authoritarian social and political codes of the past. But conservatives have played down these concerns, saying it is his frugal style and egalitarian ideals that won voters over.

Paradoxically, many said yesterday that they still agreed with President Khatami's liberalisation, but voted for Mr Ahmadinejad because they were tired of rule by clerics.

"There have been mullahs in power for the past 26 years and they've done nothing for this country except stuff their pockets," said Azam, a 45-year-old woman from a conservative social background.

To many voters, Mr Rafsanjani represented all that is wrong with the Islamic republic - an entrenched clerical elite, financial corruption and a growing gap between rich and poor.