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.
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."
"People are beginning to realize he is really messing up the economy," says the analyst. "But the only people [who see it] are the urban middle and educated classes. Those people do not have the votes or the will to challenge him."
'In the heart of the people'
On the hustings in Birjand, national TV shows Ahmadinejad being driven in a modest car early one morning to a poor sector. Standing in the street, people reach out to shake the president's hand and share their problems. He responds by placing his arms on their shoulders.
Another scene shows him in a poor family's house, sitting with a mother as she grieves for two sons martyred in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The president's body language is pitch-perfect. He sits with head down, hands clasped respectfully in his lap as the woman tells the former Revolutionary Guards officer: "I'm sure you remember the Imposed War...."
More footage shows the minister cutting ribbons on finished projects and breaking ground on new ones. Similar scenes are repeated every provincial visit.
"The amount of projects and development in the past two years is equal to the entire history of the province," says Abolfazl Noferesti, the press chief for the South Khorasan governor, who was appointed by the president. Long neglected by Tehran, this province spreads across the sprawling deserts and barren outcroppings of eastern Iran and was the first to be visited by the president in 2005.
The projects launched then are now 20 to 90 percent complete and the governor's office makes sure people know whom to applaud – especially with parliamentary elections due next March.
"People get very happy and thankful to the president and to God, when they see these projects being implemented," says Mr. Noferesti. "One of the reasons that Mr. Ahmadinejad is in the heart of the people is because whatever [he] promises, he follows it up until it is implemented. We speculate [that] in the next elections the approval and development related to these trips will be reflected."
Looking to Iran's 2009 elections
Aides deny that a reelection campaign is under way. But the men and women who crammed into the mosque for prayers – where most could only feel the brief electric presence of Ahmadinejad since he did not speak – were handed leaflets extolling the "Secrets of the Successful Ninth Cabinet." One black-shrouded woman, eager to see the president, sneaked through a door from the women's section to the men's, before being dragged back by other women.
The campaign handout credited Ahmadinejad with "removing the depredation from the face of this desert province," and used carefully cherry-picked national statistics that ranged from an explosion of cellphone usage to a boost in foreign investment. It listed diplomatic "greatness" and national pride engendered by nuclear defiance.
There was also a photo of Mr. Khamenei and a message saying the supreme leader "thanks God" for a "pious president" and a working cabinet "the nation wants, the men whose sleeves are up and belted for service to the people."
Among those presidential foot soldiers is Mehdi Kalhor, a senior media adviser pressed into agriculture duty. In South Khorasan, he visited several farms, including an experimental irrigation project that makes clay tubes to seep moisture to crops – cutting to zero the typical 75 percent water loss from evaporation.
Ahmadinejad "went through this process of evaluating problems from village level," says Mr. Kalhor. "He can't go everywhere so he sends us to check [on needs], and we report back to him."
The president himself had visited the site two years ago, but no money had come. "It wasn't going anywhere. It was stopped at the gates of bureaucracy," says Kalhor of the project near Bideskan, 100 miles northwest of the provincial capital. "I came back to Birjand and spoke to the president. In 2-1/2 hours it was resolved; before, it would take 20 years."
Such intervention makes good politics, and Kalhor admits: "What's happening in our country is not hidden from ourselves – we know who gets the vote and who doesn't."
But how real are these claims of the president's men? During an unscripted visit to Bideskan to find out, the director was effusive. "It was so fast – yesterday I was called by the governor's office to collect the money," says Mohsen Hedjazi.
The pilot project now churns out 15,000 dried clay tubes daily and it plans to increase staff from 70 to 1,200 within four months. Did the president make his dreams come true? Mr. Hedjazi does not hesitate: "Yes."