Iran: A Brewing Battle of Heavyweights in Tehran

Iranians are deserting the president they elected by a landslide in June 2005. Not only did university students heckle Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with chants of "Death to the dictator!" during a speech last month in Tehran, state-run TV had the temerity to report it. Some of his own supporters criticized his recent international gathering of Holocaust revisionists as harmful to Iran's national interests. And thanks to his economic flubs, Iranians are grumbling about inflation instead of reveling in an oil-boom windfall. Iranian TV reported that news, too, and when Ahmadinejad complained about the story, the network's director (a former ally) replied: "We just tell the truth." The legislature has stopped rubber-stamping the 50-year-old president's decisions, and the latest local elections cost him all but two of his allies on Tehran's 15-seat city council. The big winner: his pothole-filling, street-cleaning successor as mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, 45.

Iran's next presidential vote isn't due until 2009, but Ghalibaf is already casting a shadow on Ahmadinejad's future. The main difference between the two rivals is not so much substance as style. Both men are religious conservatives with almost identical political agendas and economic programs--and both of them voice a deep mistrust of America. But where Ahmadinejad is confrontational and "showboaty," Ghalibaf is a pragmatist with a reputation for getting things done. The president spent much of his previous career as a junior bureaucrat, while the mayor's résumé lists one overachievement after another. The son of a truck driver, Ghalibaf became a Revolutionary Guards commander at 22. He earned a Ph.D. in geopolitics while training as a pilot after the Iran-Iraq War. He led the Revolutionary Guards Air Force and then the country's security forces.

As top cop he won yet more fans. In 2003 he did something virtually unheard of: he quelled a student protest without bloodshed by holding talks with student leaders and ordering his men not to use batons or guns in dispersing the crowds. He showed a rare sense of compassion in other ways, as well, OK'ing a needle-exchange program for addicts and setting up a meeting for prostitutes to discuss alternatives to their profession. He was the conservative front runner in 2005 until he reached out to moderates and lost his base. "It was interesting to see Mr. Ghalibaf become more reformist than the reformists themselves," recalls sociologist Hamidreza Jalaeipour. "In the meantime, Ahmadinejad found who were the real hard-liners and gave them a voice." For now, Ghalibaf is making sure Tehran's trash gets picked up--and doing a fine job, too--while he waits for 2009. He's not a man who makes the same mistake twice.