Friday, 7 December 2007

IRANIAN PRES POPULAR AMONGST POOR & PIOUS

Ahmadinejad: rock star in rural Iran

While he is maligned by the West, the firebrand president
is adored by Iran's poor and pious.

By Scott Peterson
The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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