Ahmadinejad: rock star in rural Iran
While he is maligned by the West, the firebrand president is adored by Iran's poor and pious.
Birjand and Bideskan, Iran
Shoes off, and packed so tightly in a mosque that they sweat in the chilly night, several thousand men in eastern Iran await their hero. The air is electric.Skip to next paragraph
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When he arrives, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is greeted like a rock star: with a collective inhale the crowd jumps up to catch a glimpse of the firebrand populist. "Sit down! Sit down!" a cleric implores, as laudatory whistling intensifies. "The friend of the Imam [Mahdi] has come!"
While Mr. Ahmadinejad is under attack across Iran's political spectrum for his economic policies and unyielding nuclear rhetoric, even his detractors say these frequent visits to Iran's provinces are shrewd politics that give him a serious shot at reelection in 2009.
The president now also gloats – over Iranian rivals who say he brought the country close to war, as much as over American hawks championing attacks – about a new US National Intelligence Estimate that said this week Iran halted a nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The report is "a victory for the Iranian nation in the nuclear issue against all international powers," Ahmadinejad told rallying supporters Wednesday in the western city of Ilam. He warned: "If you want to start up a new game, the Iranian people will resist and will not step back one inch."
Reaching out to the pious and poor
A rare journey by a Western reporter, concurrent with one of Ahmadinejad's visits last month to South Khorasan Province where he handed out toys, cash, and executive support for big-ticket development projects, shows how the president is building his political base outside the capital, Tehran.
An unannounced visit to an experimental irrigation project, among many being touted by the president's aides, also found that a large infusion of cash, received the day before this reporter's visit, will enable operations to expand 20-fold, creating more than 1,100 new jobs with credit going to Ahmadinejad.
As the president began a second round of 30 provincial visits in the city of Birjand, his entourage of aides and ministers spread out to villages to check on development projects, cut red tape, and receive 130,000 personal letters full of requests for money and jobs, as well as complaints – adding them to the 9 million letters the president has already accumulated over 2-1/2 years in office.
Iranians have as many problems as ever, from corruption to soaring prices and unemployment. But during this trip, the president spent millions in this province alone – from new petrochemical factories to shantytown improvement. He promised that next fiscal year, 40 percent of Iran's budget would go to rural areas.
All of this adds to a perception here of Ahmadinejad as a pious populist, a man searching for solutions, and not part of the problem. Some even link him to the Shiite Muslim savior, the Mahdi, whom they expect will one day return to bring universal justice.
"Ahmadinejad is the best president that we have ever had.… He is an angel, the envoy of the Imam of the Age [Mahdi]," says one sandwich-shop owner in Sarayan, a few hours north of Birjand.
"But still, our town has lots of problems," laments the owner, who was refused a loan from city hall to expand his eatery into a guesthouse. "You have to have a friend to have your request approved. Problems, problems...."
Such faith in Ahmadinejad contrasts sharply with the view in Tehran, where criticism of the president is daily fare. The moderate Mardom-Salari newspaper calls provincial trips a "backward step" drawn from the first days of ancient Greek democracy. Better to improve the overall economy, the paper chided, so fewer Iranians feel compelled to write personal requests.
But the carefully crafted image plays well among the president's core constituents: legions of pious Iranians who still say they believe his promise to bring them a share of Iran's vast oil wealth; and ideological warriors of the basiji (volunteer ideological forces) militia and Revolutionary Guards forces who have profited most from government contracts.
"There are only two ways Ahmadinejad can be defeated," says a political scientist in Tehran, who asked not to be named. "Another [reformist] mass vote or Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Sayyed Ali] Khamenei fully withdraws his support for Ahmadinejad – and I don't see either one happening."
The president, says this analyst, "is getting smarter on how he spends money, targets his campaigns, and at negative campaigning." In recent weeks, Ahmadinejad has lambasted critics of his nuclear policy as "traitors."