Rural Iran May Shift Loyalty: Some Residents See President Losing Their Support

Hossein Baaderi backs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for another term; Ali Ghorbani likes Mir Hossein Mousavi in Friday vote.
Hossein Baaderi backs Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for another term; Ali Ghorbani likes Mir Hossein Mousavi in Friday vote. (By Thomas Erdbrink -- The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 7, 2009

DAST-E ARZHAN, Iran -- Container trucks race past the yellow-brick houses of Dast-e Arzhan, a small town in Iran's central Fars province, the heartland of ancient Persian culture.

Little more than a strip of houses along the highway, the town is like many in Iran's provinces, drab and frozen in time. Unemployed young men drive around aimlessly on sputtering mopeds, and litter lines the sides of the road. A green sign next to the highway points visitors toward the local mosque.

In the 2005 election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a large part of his support from Fars and the other central provinces. His victory was achieved through a word-of-mouth campaign led by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and voluntary paramilitary units known as baseej, who promoted the then-unknown candidate to farmers and laborers in towns such as Dast-e Arzhan.

In the years since, Ahmadinejad has focused policies based on spreading the wealth on these backwater regions, which he has visited regularly during his term. But despite the widely held view that his support remains strong in rural areas, many of Dast-e Arzhan's 3,000 residents say they plan to vote for his main opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in Friday's election. They say that Ahmadinejad has not lived up to his promises and that they are worse off since he came to power.

At a collection of restaurants and stands that serves as the main gathering point here, posters of the gray-bearded Mousavi hang everywhere. The former prime minister and architect has promised more freedoms and better management of Iran's ailing economy, but he has not revealed a clear plan for achieving his goals.

"My boss brought 1,500 Mousavi posters, and in four days we handed them all out," said Samad Raeesi, a restaurant manager. "People came to us to ask for them. I am sure that Mousavi will win big here."

Ahmadinejad's government has increased wages and pensions, and has put more than 22 million Iranians in a government-sponsored health-care system. He has taken his entire cabinet on 60 trips, visiting each of Iran's provinces, addressing local problems, initiating the building of schools and sports complexes, and sometimes even handing out cash.

But inflation and unemployment have gone up, canceling out many of the improvements.

Raeesi said that he voted for Ahmadinejad, and that it was a mistake. In the restaurant's courtyard, only a few customers sat on platforms, decorated with pillows and red Persian carpets, and ate kebabs.

"People have less money to spend. Mousavi will cure the economy, because he has experience from leading the country during the war with Iraq," Raeesi said.

If Ahmadinejad wins the election, the future looks bleak, Raeesi said. "His decisions are unprofessional. Everything, our freedoms, the economy, will become much, much worse," he said.

Store owner Hadi Bahadri, 20, surrounded by posters of Iranian stars, including rapper Sasi Mankan, said, "Mousavi will make our lives more free.

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