Teheran's city council re-elected a moderate-leaning mayor in a vote Wednesday that pointed to waning support for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose allies had campaigned against the choice.
The mayor, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, has enjoyed growing popularity and is seen as a likely rival to Ahmadinejad in the next presidential election two years from now. Qalibaf is a conservative who backs Iran's Islamic government but is also a pragmatist who has stressed efficiency over hardline ideology in running the capital.
Qalibaf's rise is the result of increasing discontent among conservatives toward Ahmadinejad, whom they widely supported in his 2005 election victory. But since then, many conservatives have sharply criticized Ahmadinejad, saying he has failed to tackle Iran's economic problems and that his fiery rhetoric has needlessly worsened Iran's conflicts with the West.
"This is an important event. It shows that conservatives are distancing themselves from radicals headed by Ahmadinejad," Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst and columnist in independent papers, said of Qalibaf's re-election.
Teheran city council members were under tremendous pressure from the government not to vote for Qalibaf. Mohsen Mirdamadi, the leader of Iran's largest reformist party, said Ahmadinejad's allies pushed council members to elect any other candidate - even a more liberal one - as long as Qalibaf didn't win.
But in Wedneday's vote, Qalibaf won with the backing of eight of the council's 15 members.
Ahmadinejad was Qalibaf's predecessor as Teheran mayor and used the high-profile post as a stepping stone to win the 2005 election - and he clearly worries Qalibaf could attempt the same thing.
Qalibaf ran in the 2005 presidential election but did not make it to the runoff vote. But he could be Ahmadinejad's strongest opponent in the election expected in June 2009. Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the country's most powerful politicians, was defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2005 and the 72-year-old likely won't run again because of his age.
For years, Iran's political scene has been divided between two camps. On one side were reformists - who support better ties with the West, including the US, and have sought to dismantle Iran's strict Islamic restrictions, including dress codes on women and segregation of the sexes.
On the other side were hard-liners - backed by the nation's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - who are pushing for a toughening of the restrictions and sharply oppose relations with the West.
Ahmadinejad's election marked the solidification of the hard-liners' hold on power. But during his time in office, tensions have mounted dramatically with the US - sparking fears here of American military action - and the United Nations has imposed gradually toughening sanctions on Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
At the same time, Iran's economy has worsened, with prices spiralling. Hard-liners have used the confrontation with the West as a pretext to crack down on opponents and launch morality campaigns like one last month in which women were arrested for not meeting Islamic dress codes.
Though he supports Iran's clerical leadership, Qalibaf has not pushed an agenda of Islamic rules. Female staffers at the Teheran municipality, for example, have not been forced to wear the chador, a head-to-toe robe that is the most conservative of Islamic dress.
"Qalibaf's record as Teheran mayor indicates his skill in strategic management, something that has rarely been applied in the capital," said Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a conservative lawmaker who campaigned for Ahmadinejad in 2005 but became a vocal critic.