Sunday Telegraph: The petitions kiosk outside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s home in Teheran, set up as a hotline to Iran’s self-described “humblest servant”, receives all kinds of requests. The Sunday Telegraph
By Colin Freeman in Teheran, Sunday Telegraph
The petitions kiosk outside President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s home in Teheran, set up as a hotline to Iran’s self-described “humblest servant”, receives all kinds of requests.
Yet amid the pleas for help with debts and joblessness, and tussles with Iran’s byzantine bureaucracy, there is one letter that the men at the counter particularly remember.
“A woman asked if Mr Ahmadinejad could find her a good husband,” said one proudly. “It shows how popular he is – you would only request something like that if you really felt he’d become part of your family.”
In this particular case, the president’s office replied that it was beyond his powers – a rare admission of defeat from a leader whose personality cult rivals that of Iran’s “supreme leader”, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Yet last week, two years after his election to power on a promise to help Iran’s downtrodden masses, Mr Ahmadinejad, 49, finally learnt the downside of the demagogic approach – namely, that running a country of 69 million inhabitants as a one-man band involves taking blame as well as credit.
The issue was not over his notorious threats to “wipe Israel off the map”, his defiance on Iran’s nuclear programme, nor his puritanical desire to return to the early days of the Islamic revolution. Instead, the man who considers himself on a divine mission was floundering because of his inability to minister to one of his flock’s most basic needs: petrol.
On Tuesday, a proclamation from his palace suddenly imposed a fuel ration of three litres (0.6 gallons) a day, a move designed to stockpile supplies because of fears of United Nations sanctions.
Within hours his name was being cursed, as motorists clashed with riot police at fuel stations and set garage forecourts ablaze.
“Without fuel I cannot earn,” said the driver of a battered saloon car who had finally reached the head of a long queue for petrol. He was a shopkeeper who, like many residents of Teheran, supplements a meagre income by moonlighting as a cabbie. “Ahmadinejad is an ass. This is not what he promised the ordinary man.”
The protests, the most open sign of discontent with Mr Ahmadinejad’s rule since he took office in 2005, were accompanied by a stream of text-messaged jokes, which often serve as a vent for Iranians’ suppressed frustrations. “On the orders of President Ahmadinejad,” read one, “those who are short of petrol can have a ride on the 17 million donkeys who voted for him.”
For a man whose key election promise was to “put the oil income on people’s tables”, there could scarcely be a more symbolic failure than the imposition of fuel rationing. Heavily state-subsidised, petrol normally costs less than bottled drinking water at about 1,000 rials (5p) a litre, and most Iranians regard it with a sense of entitlement.
The government, admittedly, has long threatened to introduce such measures, pointing out that such generous subsidies encourage wasteful usage and exacerbate the choking fumes on Teheran’s streets. Now, however, the fuel restrictions are seen as the latest example of how hardship has grown under Mr Ahmadinejad.
The fear of UN sanctions following Iran’s refusal to stop uranium enrichment means that foreign investment in the country has waned, hampering the president’s ability to deliver on his pledge to slash unemployment. His response, a big, state-directed jobs and welfare programme using earnings from record oil revenues, has led to inflation soaring to 40 per cent.
Only weeks ago, 50 senior Iranian economists wrote an open letter warning that the president’s policies were hurting the people he had vowed to help – the poor. It was the second such missive in a year, yet it is no surprise that it seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Mr Ahmadinejad recently removed one of the government’s main economic planning units, replacing qualified technocrats with his own acolytes. And in any case, he prefers to rely on the economic wisdom of “common men” like himself.
“We have hard-working shopkeepers in our neighbourhood from whom I get important economic information,” he told Iranian newspapers recently. “For example, there is an honourable butcher in our neighbourhood who is aware of all the problems.”
The Sunday Telegraph attempted to track down the traders with the presidential ear, but those near Mr Ahmadinejad’s home denied that he had ever sought their counsel. Even if he had done, it is unlikely he would have liked what he heard.
“I voted for Ahmadinejad because I thought he represented a new way of doing things,” said Samid Jalali, a grocer, whose cramped shop is a minute’s stroll from Mr Ahmadinejad’s house.
“But I am not satisfied with the way things are going. Inflation is much worse now: a tin of cooking oil has gone from $6 to $9 in just three months, for example. We have arguments every day with customers now, because they think we are just increasing the prices for ourselves.”
Small wonder, then, that Mr Ahmadinejad’s critics predict that his downfall may lie in the discontent of his ordinary working-class constituents, rather than the reformist efforts of Teheran’s educated, pro-Western middle class. The reformists remain as fractured as they were during the last elections, and an increasing clampdown on the press, academia and student organisations seems to have further weakened them, rather than galvanised them.
Instead it is the economy that is Mr Ahmadinejad’s Achilles’ heel, said one Western official, not least because his highly personalised style of government means there is nobody else to take the blame.
Even his harshest critics, though, concede that Mr Ahmadinejad has tried to connect with the Iranian people in a way that few of his predecessors, reformist or hardline, have ever done. Since he came to power he has made a point of touring the country’s provinces and visiting remote villages that have suffered decades of neglect.
Of more concern, critics say, is the “narcissistic” way such visits are carried out. They usually start with a speech about the Mehdi, the Shia messiah whom Mr Ahmadinejad believes will soon arrive to deliver universal justice. Yet listening to the grandiose promises that inevitably follow, some might wonder what would be left for the Mehdi to do.
“He loves to show off by asking the ordinary people what they want, and telling them he will build roads and houses,” said one senior reformist.
“But it’s all about him, and it often involves humiliating the provincial governors. On some occasions he has told a crowd of people, ‘I will twist this governor’s ear for you,’ while the governor is sitting there. How is the governor supposed to maintain his authority after that?”
Opponents are pinning their hopes on Mr Ahmadinejad being unable to satisfy his growing legion of supplicants, most of whom, they claim, get nothing more than one of five standard response letters when they send in a petition. “Soon there will be disappointment, because little of what people ask of him will materialise,” predicted Abdullah Momeni, another leading reformist.
That, however, may not stop Mr Ahmadinejad spending billions of pounds in the attempt. He now has an extremely ambitious plan to create up to a million jobs in Iran’s under-developed rural east, by building a vast network of steel, cement, and petrochemicals factories – despite the fact that some of the planned steelworks will be more than 200 miles from the nearest iron mines.
The scheme has been condemned as “Stalinist” by Mr Ahmadinejad’s critics, who say it will squander state oil riches on plants that will eventually be left to rust away.
Yet for the president’s diehard faithful, only when Islamo-communism’s first five-year plan is complete will his own judgment day truly come. Even then, in keeping with all hardline ideologues, they are likely to insist that failure is not the fault of the revolution itself, but of its enemies.
“Ahmadinejad is number one,” said Mohammed Reza, a member of the Basiji religious militia, which provides the bedrock of his support. “But we can only evaluate him once his work is done – and right now there are many people standing in his way.”