No need for ties with Washington, says Iran's hardline new President

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The Independent Online

In his first statements since a landslide election victory on Friday, Iran's new hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defended his government's right to a nuclear programme and said that the country had "no significant need" for ties with the United States.

In his first statements since a landslide election victory on Friday, Iran's new hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, defended his government's right to a nuclear programme and said that the country had "no significant need" for ties with the United States.

The former mayor of Tehran also sought to assuage domestic fears that he would crack down on social and political freedoms, saying in a press conference that "no extremism will be acceptable in popular government".

Mr Ahmadinejad's triumph has been greeted with dismay in Western capitals, which fear a newly confrontational approach from Tehran after months of tortuous negotiations over Iran's uranium-enrichment programme, which it claims is only intended to satisfy domestic energy needs. But although he was dismissive of American claims that the election was flawed and illegitimate, Mr Ahmadinejad was more conciliatory towards Europe, which has led the nuclear negotiations.

"Preserving national interests and emphasising the right of the Iranian nation for using peaceful nuclear technology," said the new President, "we will continue the talks," adding that they should be concluded "quickly". With America however, it appears that Mr Ahmadinejad is prepared to let relations go into a deep freeze. His defeated opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, made improved dialogue with the US a pillar of his election campaign. But, asked yesterday about Washington's persistent criticism of poll arrangements, the president-elect angrily replied: "In the democratic elections in our country, the people have chosen their president. Those who defend dictatorships cannot pass judgement on us."

Sitting behind a large bank of microphones and surrounded by bunches of flowers, the already slight new leader looked smaller still. A modest suit reflected his preferred image as a common man and he wore no tie, seen in post-revolutionary Iran as a symbol of capitalist oppression.

Mr Ahmadinejad was relaxed, responding to hecklers with humour. "I'd like to welcome criticism, even when it comes in the form of shouting," he said, when an angry journalist loudly protested against his answer to a question about freedom of speech.

The former mayor, who came to power promising more social justice and a fairer distribution of Iran's huge oil earnings, insisted he would promote foreign investment and support Iran's burgeoning stock exchange, but was vague about specific policies. However, he reiterated a pledge to tackle oil-sector corruption. "Fighting bureaucratic corruption in all sectors, including oil, is part of a definite policy for our government," he said.

Street reaction to the election results was mixed, with even many of his voters declaring themselves sceptical that the new President would deliver. "I voted for the first time after 26 years," said Ali Reza, a taxi driver at a main transport hub in central Tehran. "But we still don't know much about this man. This is their last chance and we want to see what they do."

The conservative press hailed Mr Ahmadinejad's victory, attributing it to his modest campaign. "He sent a message to the poor and oppressed that I am one of you and know you well," said the daily Resalat. Kayhan, which has close ties to the office of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said his election would seriously challenge US policy in the Middle East.

Mr Rafsanjani angrily questioned the legitimacy of Mr Ahmadinejad's victory, accusing his supporters of using dirty tricks including a smear campaign that painted him as corrupt. He said state bodies had taken part unfairly in the election, and thereby "weakened the revolution".

"All the means of the regime were used in an organised and illegal way to intervene in the election," he said in a statement to the state broadcaster.

But Mr Rafsanjani will not appeal against the result. He said the country's judiciary, widely seen as allied to hardline conservatives, was either unwilling or unable to address his claims. Given that eight million votes separated him from his successful rival, there was in any case no suggestion that he might otherwise have won the poll.

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