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astralis
06 Sep 06,, 02:30
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14640273/site/newsweek/

How Popular Is He Really?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presents himself as a man of the people. But his support among the poor seems to be eroding.

By Maziar Bahari
Newsweek International
Sept. 11, 2006 issue - You haven't lived 'til you've driven a BMW 740," exclaims Reza, Tehran's self-proclaimed No. 1 Ladies' Man. He accelerates past posters of Iranian, Palestinian and Lebanese martyrs as other drivers eye his slicked-back hair and designer shades with mixed envy and disdain. Bopping to Kamran and Hooman, an Iranian pop duo from Los Angeles, he flips open his mobile. "The stallion's thirsty for you," he croons to one of his (many) girlfriends. Reza is not only rich but also corny and, seemingly, morals-free. "I've paid so many fines for speeding that the government should give me a medal!" Arrested repeatedly for such infractions, or worse, he says he bribes his way out of trouble.

To many Iranians, Reza and his ilk symbolize all that is wrong with their country and its direction. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls them "people with money and no pain"—not to mention "corruptors of the earth." The fact that he himself is clearly not of their class is key to his popularity. But beyond the rhetoric, is he doing much to right the balance? Reza and other rich Iranians dismiss the president as all talk. More surprising is the fact that in recent months, so do a growing number of the poor Iranians who are the backbone of his support.

Ahmadinejad can ill afford any erosion of his standing. Last week, as the United Nations deadline for Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment program passed, the president was defiant. "Iran is not going to give up even an iota of its inalienable right to nuclear energy," he declared in the main stadium of the southern city of Orumia, on one of the many trips to the provinces that have cemented his image as a man of the people. But support for such an uncompromising stance could be tenuous. Ahmadinejad took office a year ago promising to improve the lives of ordinary citizens by distributing the country's oil wealth more fairly—in his own words, "by bringing the oil money to people's tables." So far, he has failed to deliver. Having coffers fat enough to withstand Western sanctions, however symbolic, won't be enough if the hopes of millions of Iranians for a fair deal are dashed.

That, according to analysts, is precisely what's happening. Tehran is awash in money—an extra $25 billion last year alone. But ordinary Iranians are seeing little of it. Per capita incomes have failed to keep pace with rising living costs; rents are skyrocketing beyond people's means to pay. In many interviews with news-week during recent weeks, Iranians of all political hues and classes have described Ahmadinejad's economic plans as well intentioned but unsophisticated and unlikely to yield their promised benefits. Longer term, many fear they may end in outright disaster.

Exhibit A, in their view, is the president's impractical Compassion Fund, intended originally to give interest-free loans to newly married couples, create jobs and underwrite security deposits so that poor Iranians could afford down payments on apartments. When proposed to Parliament last year, lawmakers concluded the scheme was so naively idealistic and financially ill considered that they killed it. Ahmadinejad promptly exercised executive privilege to establish a limited version of the plan, and so far 21,000 couples have registered for wedding loans. But how many have actually received money? No one knows.

Similar problems beset another grand design, Shares for Justice. The idea here, decreed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is to privatize state-owned industries and distribute shares to the people as a sort of national mutual fund. Trouble is, the government has changed positions so many times that no one knows any longer how the companies will be sold off, how shares will be valued or who will be eligible to receive them. Ahmadinejad says repeatedly that the program will "close the gap between rich and poor and help the oppressed." But he's been mum on the technicalities, prompting some Iranians to wonder just who's likely to benefit most from the deal.

In this, recent developments have not been reassuring. Shortly after Ahmadinejad came to power, the government undertook to reform Iran's labor laws. It raised the minimum wage by 60 percent from $120 a month to $180, covering eight out of 10 employees. Within a few months, however, many small factories found they could no longer afford their workers and began shutting down. Among those laid off was Amir V., a factory worker and one of an estimated 320,000 Iranians who, according to Minister of Labor Mohammad Jahromi, have lost their jobs over the past four months. "At first," says Amir, "they fired 300 workers in our factory. Then the bosses closed the factory altogether, so the rest lost their jobs as well." When the government subsequently backtracked and reduced the state-mandated wages by a third, Iran's powerful unions protested, pointing to surging inflation and demanding a minimum wage that reflected the rise in living costs—the equivalent of $240 a month. Now the government and the unions are deadlocked. One labor leader was recently dragged from his house and imprisoned for staging a peaceful strike.

Meanwhile, those who have benefited most from Ahmadinejad's rule seem to be those who ultimately secure his hold on power—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Senior officers have been appointed to top government posts. More importantly, they have been rewarded economically. Two years ago, when the previous government was about to award management of the new Imam Khomeini Airport to a Turkish company, Guards who wanted to run it themselves shot at the first airplane that was about to land. Needless to say, the Turkish contract was annulled. More recently a lucrative gas-exploration and transportation contract worth more than $2 billion was awarded to the Guards. The contract went ahead without being opened to public bidding, in direct violation of the law. More and more, Iranians fear Ahmadinejad's political cronies will reap the riches of his rule, not the men in the street who elected him.

Many Iranians believe they deserve better. To be sure, they are tired after years of revolution, terrorism and war. Most seem to have made a silent pact: as long as the government doesn't involve itself in their personal affairs and provides life's basic necessities, they will remain apolitical. Economists suggest that as long oil remains above $40, this uneasy status quo can endure. But unless Ahmadinejad can find a more efficient way of distributing that wealth, discontent is likely to brew even among the apolitical.

Slick Reza in his BMW is, naturally, sanguine. "This is a government of bazaaris, my friend. We haggle and bargain but eventually find a compromise," he says. "Look," he adds, streaking past a photo of yet another martyr along the highway. "My dad served with him in the Iran-Iraq war. I'm sure if he were alive today he would've loved to drive this car." But as for Amir, he's now a street peddler selling bootleg CDs, trying to make ends meet. "I voted for Ahmadinejad because I thought he would be different," he says, ruefully looking back on his hopes for change. "A big mistake."

© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.