June 3, 2006


A Man of the People's Needs and Wants: Ahmadinejad Praised in Iran as a Caring Leader (Karl Vick, 6/03/06, Washington Post)

For the time being, Ahmadinejad's image at home stands in stark counterpoint to his notoriety elsewhere. Scrappy and bellicose to the West, his presidency has distinguished itself inside Iran by an almost total absence of pain.

Iran remains Iran, of course. Controls on the press are firmer than ever, and the April arrest of Ramin Jahanbegloo, a philosopher without a strong reputation for political activism, has both mystified and unsettled elements of Tehran's professional class.

But Ahmadinejad's government has delivered none of the widely predicted crackdowns on social behavior. Iranians remain free to drink, party and generally do as they please behind closed doors. In public, young couples can still canoodle lightly on the street, and young women stretch the definition of "Islamic dress" with form-fitting outerwear.

In fact, the hard-line president last month stunned conservatives and liberals alike by ordering the national stadium opened to female soccer fans, an egalitarian gesture that was thwarted when clerics appealed directly to Iran's unelected supreme leader.

But Ahmadinejad's primary focus is the ordinary people normally paid little notice by the country's insular, elitist political culture except at election time.

Ahmadinejad addresses them personally. "I love you too," he told the cheering crowd in Arak. But the only part of the speech heard in the world beyond Iran was what he said about Europe's emerging offer of incentives if Iran abandoned uranium enrichment: "walnuts for gold."

In the audience, Rezaei barely noticed that part.

"The main emphasis of his speech is that he's going to raise up the people who have been deprived of a good life," said Rezaei, who makes his living ambling along the sidewalks of Arak, one hand on a clarinet that plays a flowing, upbeat tune, the other on a crutch. "His main point is he's going to bring a balance between people who have a lot of money and the poor. He's going to give them opportunity. This was the point people loved very much."

The response has been overwhelming in more ways than one. When Ahmadinejad offered Iranians low-interest loans for housing, his office prepared for 30,000 applications. It received 2 million. Other new programs offer loans to newlyweds, farmers, villagers and small businesses.

"Each day we get between 130 and 150 requests," said Hamed Alizadeh at the walk-up window at an office in Tehran, set up around the corner from the modest townhome that symbolized Ahmadinejad's personal integrity during the campaign.

Labeled "President's Public Relations Office," the window receives hand-delivered letters from 8 to 5:30 six days a week. Alizadeh, part of a constituent service staff of 200, runs a highlighter over each essential passage, fills out a form for the relevant ministry, then hands the citizen a phone number to call after 10 days.

The requests can be amusing, he said: One woman wanted the president to find her a husband. But seven in 10 ask for money. The president's visit to Iran's poorest province, Sistan and Baluchistan, brought 200,000 letters alone.

"Everybody is saying he will actually solve the problems, so I've come all this way," said Ashraf Samadi, 47, who borrowed $320 from neighbors for the 16-hour bus ride to Tehran to deliver her letter in person. She wanted funds for a son's failing kidney and a daughter's wedding.

"Is there any chance of seeing the president himself?" she asked.

For a politician, the consequences of disappointing such achingly personal hopes could be catastrophic. But Ahmadinejad's government has been cushioned by the flood of revenue from oil exports at $70 a barrel, a price that in part reflects markets made nervous by his belligerent remarks on nuclear power and Israel.

He understands that every time he rattles the nuclear saber or questions the Holocaust the American Right will help him drive up the price of oil.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 3, 2006 12:43 PM

So now he's an economic Machiavellien?

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct. at June 3, 2006 1:19 PM

And he wants us to think he's a nutcase. Just like any other "bad cop".

Posted by: ghostcat at June 3, 2006 1:20 PM

Maybe we'll help replace him too.

Posted by: pj at June 3, 2006 1:30 PM

He is a nut case.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 1:40 PM

I see cunning, calculation and provocation. All in pursuit of an objective: resumption of direct relations with us. He's nearly there.

Don't sound like delusion to moi.

Posted by: ghostcat at June 3, 2006 4:08 PM

They have to salvage the economy or the Revolution is toast. Higher oil prices buy them time.

Posted by: oj at June 3, 2006 5:03 PM

Sounds like Peron to me, but with a nasty twist. Very nasty.

I still say he is the face of the regime, primarily because it gives the Euros and most of America someone to see who isn't wearing a turban (and therefore doesn't automatically remind them of Ayman Al-Zawahiri). Plus, his 'hipness' (or aura) gives him juice with Islamic youth, both at home and in the rest of the non-Arabic world. I would think that leaders like Mubarak know exactly how dangerous he is.

Posted by: ratbert at June 3, 2006 10:10 PM