Iran seeks to thwart moderate Teheran mayor

Some say Ahmadinejad allies oppose Qalibaf's re-election as mayor for fear that he could be a rival in the next presidential elections

Qalibaf, mayor 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Qalibaf, mayor 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Iran's hard-line government has been campaigning to prevent the Teheran City Council from re-electing a conservative moderate as mayor in a vote that could highlight President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's waning support at home. The mayor's post was a stepping stone for Ahmadinejad's rise to the presidency in 2005, and the hard-line Iranian president and his supporters are apparently anxious it could be the same for the moderate Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf. Ahmadinejad has faced increasing criticism in Iran for fueling fights with the West with his stance on Iran's disputed nuclear program. His allies suffered an embarrassing defeat in local council elections last December in a vote that was seen as a sign of growing public discontent with his leadership. By contrast, Qalibaf, 46, won praise for dealing peacefully with pro-democracy student protests as head of Iran's national police until 2005, and refraining from the iron-fist tactics of his predecessors. He is also credited with trying to bring more professionalism to the force and change its image to one of more neutrality. Qalibaf, a former pilot, spoke in defense of his candidacy at a meeting Tuesday of the Teheran City Council. Another candidate for the post and close Ahmadinejad ally, Hasan Bayadi, also spoke. Two other candidates, Ahmadinejad ally Nader Shariatmadari, and Rasoul Khadem, conservative moderate and former wrestling champion, are also in the race. Unlike his three rivals, who are all members of the Tehran City Council and can vote, Qalibaf as mayor, cannot. The vote is expected Wednesday. However, the majority of council members are believed to support Qalibaf, whose skill in modernizing the capital and implementing gigantic development projects has garnered admiration from the general public and even hard-liners. "Qalibaf's record as Teheran mayor indicates his skill in strategic management, something that has rarely been applied in the capital," conservative lawmaker Mohammad Khoshchehreh said. Khoshchehreh, an economist and conservative, publicly campaigned for Ahmadinejad in 2005 but later turned critical of the president's economic policies. Qalibaf's re-election would be seen as a victory for "moderate conservatives" - supporters of Iran's cleric-led power structure angry at Ahmadinejad over his harsh anti-Western rhetoric and faltering economic policies. Ahmadinejad has sharply escalated Iran's nuclear dispute with the United States, pushing ahead with uranium enrichment despite UN demands that Iran suspend the process. In December, the UN Security Council slapped sanctions on Tehran - and strengthened them two months later - for its refusal to stop uranium enrichment, a program the US fears aims to develop nuclear weapons. Teheran denies the charges. Teheran City Council members are said to be under tremendous pressure from the government not to vote for Qalibaf. Mohsen Mirdamadi, leader of Iran's largest reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, said Ahmadinejad allies oppose Qalibaf's re-election as mayor because they fear he could be a rival in the next presidential elections. "They are so afraid that hard-liners told our allies in the City Council that they would compromise on any candidate excluding Qalibaf," Mirdamardi said. Khoshrow Daneshjoo, council spokesman, claimed that political pressures on council members won't influence their vote. "Pressures won't influence our decisions," he said. Qalibaf is seen as a likely candidate in the next presidential elections, expected to be held in late 2008 or early 2009, because Ahmadinejad's strongest opponent so far, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 72, likely won't run because of his age. Qalibaf is considered to be in the same line as Rafsanjani, although it is not clear whether Rafsanjani would necessarily support him. Two other events this week highlighted Ahmadinejad's political problems at home. On Tuesday, the conservative-dominated assembly called for the impeachment of the education minister over what they alleged was his mismanagement, widespread purge ministry workers in favor of radical hard-liners and failing to respond to growing teacher protests. Dozens of teachers have been detained and others threatened with dismissal for demanding higher payments in recent weeks. On Monday, reformist students at a Tehran university voted for representatives to a student pro-democracy association despite beatings by hard-line students and security guards loyal to the government. Several of the students suffered bruises and some were hospitalized after the attacks at Amir Kabir University in central Tehran. Other universities were not able to hold the vote for the association, which the government says is illegal.