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Hard-liners are defied in Tehran vote

Moderate-leaning mayor is reelected

TEHRAN -- The moderate-leaning mayor of Iran's capital was reelected yesterday in a City Council vote that signaled waning support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose allies campaigned hard against the choice.

Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf is considered a likely rival to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential election. The mayor is a conservative who backs the Islamic government, but also a pragmatist who has stressed efficiency over hard-line ideology in running Tehran.

Qalibaf's rise is the result of the conservatives' increasing discontent with the hard-line president. Since Ahmadinejad's 2005 election victory, many conservatives have accused him of failing to tackle Iran's economic problems and needlessly exacerbating conflicts with the West with his fiery rhetoric.

"This is an important event. It shows that conservatives are distancing themselves from radicals headed by Ahmadinejad," said Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst and columnist in independent papers.

Tehran 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 rather than Qalibaf.

But in yesterday's vote, Qalibaf won with the backing of eight of the council's 15 members.

Ahmadinejad was Qalibaf's predecessor as Tehran mayor and used the high-profile post as a stepping stone to win the presidential election -- and he clearly worries Qalibaf could follow that path.

Qalibaf's efforts to modernize Tehran's administration have appealed to Iranians seeking greater efficiency in the city. He has completed construction of expressways and tunnels, improved the subway and expanded green areas and public parks. And he has pushed construction of a movie theater complex even though hard-liners frown on cinema.

Although he supports Iran's clerical leadership, Qalibaf has not pushed an agenda of Islamic rules. Female staffers at the Tehran 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 Tehran 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 later became a vocal critic.

Qalibaf, 46, ran in the last presidential election but did not make it to the runoff. However, 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, lost in 2005 and the 72-year-old likely won't run again because of his age.