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Verdict clouds Iran reforms

Tehran, June 25 (Reuters): Ultra-conservative Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept to a stunning landslide victory in presidential elections today and immediately vowed to turn Iran into a strong and exemplary Islamic state.

His victory put in doubt Iran’s fragile liberalisation and social reform process, started by outgoing reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and raised questions about whether Iran will harden its stance on its nuclear impasse with the West.

Ahmadinejad, 48, won the backing of the religious poor to defeat veteran political heavyweight Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was supported by pro-reform parties and wealthy Iranians fearful of a hardline monopoly on power in the Islamic state.

Despite a clear victory, the vote exposed deep class divisions in the nation of 67 million. “Today is a day when we have to forget all our rivalries and turn them into friendships,” Ahmadinejad said in comments broadcast on state radio, his first since being declared winner of yesterday’s election. “Our main goal today is to create an exemplary, advanced and powerful Islamic nation,” he said.

Rafsanjani voters had said they feared Ahmadinejad would reverse modest reforms made under Khatami that allow women to dress in brighter, skimpier clothes and couples to fraternise in public without fear of arrest.

In a campaign where Rafsanjani advocated better ties with the US, Ahmadinejad had said relations with Washington were not a cure-all for Iran.

“This all but closes the door for a breakthrough in US-Iran relations,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Tehran-based analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Washington broke ties with Iran in 1980 and now accuses it of developing nuclear weapons and supporting terrorism. Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, denies the charges.

Ahmadinejad, who will be Iran’s first non-cleric President for 24 years when he takes office in August, has also used firm language on Iran’s controversial nuclear programme, saying it was the nation’s right to develop its nuclear technology.

Iran says its nuclear programme is to make electricity but the West fears it wants to make atomic weapons.

Ahmadinejad’s win was unlikely to lead to immediate changes in nuclear policy, as the final word in that and other matters of state lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“I think Ahmadinejad is less amenable to compromise on the nuclear issue, but it is unclear how much influence he will have on it,” said Sadjadpour.

In his victory speech, Ahmadinejad hinted at a shake up in the oil sector, saying oil deals needed to be clarified.

But amid rumours that he will purge government ministries after many top officials backed his opponent, he stressed the need for unity in the nation of 67 million.

“Today is a day when we have to forget all our rivalries and turn them into friendships,” Ahmadinejad said.

The vote was a crushing blow for Rafsanjani, 70, who has been at the forefront of politics since the 1979 revolution and was hoping to regain the post he held from 1989 to 1997.

Ahmadinejad's win was the latest by a new breed of hardline politicians, many of them former Revolutionary Guardsmen, who won local council and parliamentary elections in 2003 and 2004 amid widespread disillusionment with the slow pace of economic reform.

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