Iran reformists want U.S. to tone it down

Nuclear rhetoric helps a faltering Ahmadinejad stay popular, they say.

By Kim Murphy

Los Angeles Times

February 11, 2007

TEHRAN — It is a few weeks before the Iranian new year, and already the narrow market streets in south Tehran are boiling with extra shoppers. Houses must be cleaned, new curtains hung on the windows, the table laid with fresh linens. No child should leave home without new clothes and a few crisp bills in his pocket.

These neighborhoods of tight-clustered houses, dingy auto parts shops, cheap shoe stores and endless ribbons of honking, fuming cars were the bosom of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's sweep to the presidency in 2005.

"Most people voted for Ahmadinejad because he promised they would never have to feel sad again on New Year's Eve in front of their children," said Farshid Bakhtieri, a 21-year-old computer salesman. "Everyone right now, they feel nothing but regret.

"One person says he voted for Ahmadinejad because he would create jobs. And there are no jobs. Another person says it was because he would build houses. No one can afford these houses," Bakhtieri said. "He is like all the other politicians in the history of Iran, all of them coming with lots of promises, but no one follows these promises. He is exactly like the others."

Tens of thousands of Iranians will gather in the streets today for what is supposed to be a ringing public endorsement of Iran's 28-year-old Islamic Revolution and its embattled drive for nuclear power.

But many Iranians say the international dispute over Iran's nuclear program has become a rallying point for a president who otherwise would be facing substantial public dissatisfaction over soaring inflation, rising unemployment and widespread censorship.

This has been a source of frustration to Iran's reformists, who dealt the president's party a blow at the polls in local elections in December but complain that the Bush administration's threatening rhetoric has pulled the rug out from under them.

"You are harmful for us. We try to tell politicians in Washington, D.C., please don't do anything in favor of reform or to promote democracy in Iran. Because in 100% of the cases, it benefits the right wing," said Saeed Leylaz, a business consultant and advocate of economic reform and greater dialogue with the West.

"Mr. Ahmadinejad tries to make the international situation worse and worse. And now with the U.N. Security Council resolution, he can say, 'Look, we are in a dangerous position, and nobody can say anything against us, because the enemy is coming into the country.' Exactly like George W. Bush in Washington, D.C. They are helping each other. They need each other, I believe."

The government and clerical establishment have gone to great pains in recent weeks to stress to Iranians that the nation's independence is under threat. More than anything else, a strong sense of national pride has pushed Iran toward developing a nuclear power program, which the U.S. and other nations believe is aimed at building a nuclear weapon.

"Our revolution was a gift from God. If we don't say 'Thank God' every day, we will lose this gift and all we have," Ahmad Khatami, a hard-line cleric from Qom, reminded hundreds gathered for Friday prayers at Tehran University last week. "Attacking the government and the parliament and the judiciary is fanning the flames of the enemy."

Ahmadinejad's approach has been broadly popular in the provinces and among many in Tehran fed up with the wealth and corruption of those in power. The slight president, who typically wears a tan jacket, lives in a simple house and drives a normal car.

He has tried to give the lower classes a bigger share of Iran's oil wealth and has been known to respond to constituents who write to him about problems with a handwritten note, directing them to take it to the nearest bank for a loan.

But the state's share of the economy has swollen, and the Tehran stock exchange has lost more than a quarter of its value over the last 18 months. Unemployment stands at an official 11.5%, and little new foreign investment is coming in.

Meanwhile, prices are increasing at a dizzying rate. Tomatoes have risen threefold in the last year, while housing prices in more prosperous north Tehran appear to have doubled.

Bakhtieri said his mother, a university librarian, was one of several public employees who got a raise shortly after Ahmadinejad was elected, only to see it taken back when the government couldn't afford it. Some employees even had to repay the extra money they received, he said.

Bakhtieri said many Iranians blame their troubles on Ahmadinejad's generous aid programs to Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Palestinian territories and Latin America.

"I don't know why, when our people need lots of things, they have to be spending all this money in other countries," he said.

Economists say the inflation can be traced to the amount of money in circulation doubling over the last 18 months.

The government ordered banks to grant millions of dollars in new loans to small and medium-sized businesses. Bad loans put the banks at risk.

New roads, wastewater treatment plants and sports centers were launched, paid for by the government, and when the government couldn't afford it, from yet more bank loans. Banks are facing a reported $8.8 billion in bad loans.

Meanwhile, imports have doubled, to $50 billion a year. And the oil stabilization fund, which had accumulated $9 billion in unanticipated oil revenue as a hedge for the future, is forecast by some to be tapped out by the end of next month.

Voter response has been swift: When Iranians went to the polls for December's municipal council elections, Ahmadinejad's party took a beating.

"That is a devastating defeat for the president. And this is unprecedented in Iran, that after a year and a half in office a president's party is defeated like this," said a former government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This voice has to be heard now by the government."

The international conflict over the country's nuclear program has only compounded the economic problems.

U.N. sanctions targeting Iran's nuclear and missile programs will probably have little effect on the public. But a separate banking embargo being pushed by the Bush administration means Iranian businessmen must pay much more to import goods.

"The only solution we have now is to deal with Chinese companies, because the Chinese are more flexible," said Amir Saqaei, an engineer in the oil and gas industry who is developing an oil project in the western region of Cheshmakhosh. However, he said, the Chinese goods are of poor quality.

Not all of the government's troubles have been economic. Writers have complained of a near-halt to the publishing of novels. Foreign books such as William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" have been banned, and several newspapers have been closed.

In December, crackdowns on student associations and repression of activists prompted students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University to heckle the president during an appearance there. Chanting "Death to the dictator" and carrying a banner reading "Fascist Ahmadinejad," the crowd sent a shoe sailing toward the president as he stood at the podium.

A large number of parliamentary deputies signed letters this year demanding answers from the president on the nuclear issue and the economy. But new, strong language from Washington starting in January that hinted at the possibility of a military strike quickly took the wind out of their sails.

Independent legislator Akbar Alami, who had circulated a letter, said he stopped getting signatures almost immediately.

If Iranians perceive a foreign threat, he said, "they don't pay attention anymore to differences, and the problem they have between parties and governments doesn't matter anymore."

To the contrary, said former central bank governor Mohammad Hossain Adeli, it mobilizes the Iranians and ratchets up the conflict.

"The foreign pressure is counterproductive and radicalizes the domestic environment," he said. "And then this radicalization results in more confrontational positions on the part of Iran."


kim.murphy@latimes.com