Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Prince amongst Thieves

Iran's new president is hailed as Muslim Robin Hood

Reuters - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative who becomes Iran's president on Wednesday, is hailed by the devout poor as a Robin Hood figure who will give them a slice of the Islamic Republic's abundant oil wealth.

Ahmadinejad, 48, fought an election campaign in June that stressed the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution and won by a landslide, trouncing candidates whose glossy campaigns focused on restoring ties with the West.

"We did not have a revolution to have a democracy," he said.

He faces a rough ride in his early days as president, with Iran edging towards possible U.N. Security Council sanctions over a nuclear programme which Washington says is aimed at developing atomic bombs. Iran argues its ambitions are peaceful.

The EU wants to broker a deal by getting Iran to abandon its nuclear fuel cycle. Ahmadinejad says this is not an option.

"Access to nuclear technology is Iran's inalienable right and the world ought to recognise these rights," he said.

Tehran mayor since 2003, Ahmadinejad is a former member of the hardline Revolutionary Guard and an ex-instructor of the Basij religious vigilantes, sparking fears he will draw on old military comrades as cabinet colleagues.

His election broadcasts cast him as a man of the people, attending to the needs of the elderly, poor and war-wounded while rebuffing wealthy opportunists trying to circumvent regulations to make a quick profit.

He has already sent ripples of fear through the investment community with pledges to rid the oil industry of its "mafias" and not to favour foreign investors.

But analysts have said firms should take a "wait and see" approach, arguing he showed pragmatism as mayor of Tehran and could well do so again as president.

Ahmadinejad also faces accusations abroad about his past.

The United States thinks he played a key role in the storming of its embassy in Tehran immediately after the revolution, something which he and those who took part deny.

Austrian investigators are looking into whether he was involved in the murder of Kurdish dissidents in Vienna in 1989. Again, his aides deny the charges.


The blacksmith's son joined workmen sweeping the streets of Tehran after he became mayor. He plays on his humble origins and has vowed to distribute the oil wealth of OPEC's second biggest producer more directly to the people.

"I am proud of being the Iranian nation's little servant and street sweeper," Ahmadinejad said when he cast his ballot. "Today is the beginning of a new political era."

His municipality has brought in youthful management teams and tried to combat choking traffic in the capital city of 14 million people.

But some Tehranis complain Ahmadinejad replaced cultural centres with prayer halls and enforced sex segregation in municipal elevators.

His municipality also raised eyebrows by banning advertising hoardings showing the bare legs of England footballer David Beckham.

Ahmadinejad was born in the farming village of Aradan, 100 km (62 miles) southeast of Tehran, but moved to the capital in his early childhood.

He was a bright student, took a doctorate in civil engineering and went on to lecture on the subject.

In the 1990s he was governor of Ardebil, a religiously conservative city in northwest Iran, where he had to deal with floods and a devastating earthquake.

In his home village, his common touch has won hearts.

"They asked him once whether he would live in a palace when he became president," said his cousin Massoumeh Sabbaghian.

"He replied that he would, but only when every other Iranian had a palace of their own."