A Man of the People's Needs and Wants

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 3, 2006

ARAK, Iran -- The ordinary Iranians who poured into the local soccer stadium to hear President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad one day last month arrived carrying high hopes and handwritten letters. They left with just the hopes. The letters were collected in oversize cardboard boxes, then hoisted into the postal van Ahmadinejad has taken to parking prominently when he barnstorms the provinces, in an audacious campaign to make every Iranian's wish come true.

"I asked for a proper house," Vaziolla Rezaei, 57, said of the appeal he addressed to His Excellency the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. "And I also told him about my financial situation."

"I mainly wrote about my husband's lack of work," said Kobra Hedyatti, 30. "And also about our poor house and how far the children have to walk to school."

"I actually wrote him two letters," said Reza Karimi, 41. "One was about the problems we have in this neighborhood. The other was about my problems.

"Of course," Karimi added with a wave of the hand, "I do not expect him to answer me individually. But I believe he would at least solve the problem of the neighborhood.

"I believe if he really could, he would help us."

That belief, far more than anything Ahmadinejad has said about nuclear power or the Holocaust, defines Iran's energetic president for the people who elected him almost a year ago, as well as the legions he appears to have won over since taking office in August. If his image in the West is that of a banty radical dangerously out of touch with reality -- "a psychopath of the worst kind," in the words of Israel's prime minister -- the prevailing impression in Iran is precisely the opposite.

Here, ordinary people marvel at how their president comes across as someone in touch, as populist candidate turned caring incumbent. In speeches, 17-hour workdays and biweekly trips like the one that brought him here to Central Province, Ahmadinejad showcases a relentless preoccupation with the health, housing and, most of all, money problems that may barely register on the global agenda but represent the most clear and present danger for most in this nation of 70 million.

"It's good to have a very kind person near you, caring about your problems," said Akram Rashidi, 34, at the counter of a stationery store where the run on envelopes outpaced the supply of change. "The important thing is that the president and important people are caring about the people."

Ahmadinejad's ardent professions of solidarity with workaday Iranians defined his dark-horse campaign a year ago. But once in office, he took retail politics to a whole new level. The visit to Arak in mid-May was his 13th trip to the provinces, each time dragging along his cabinet in the name of bringing the government to the people.

"He made a lot of promises," said Aynollah Bagheri, 30, in nearby Khomein, one of eight towns the president hit in two days. "I can't remember them all."

The pledges -- of higher wages, housing loans, recreational centers, car factories -- already are stacked to a precarious height. And he's only halfway through Iran's 30 provinces.

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