World Takes Notice of Iran's Ahmadinejad Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been Iran's president for only six months, but he has made a strong impression worldwide. Unlike former presidents of the Islamic republic, Ahmadinejad is not a cleric, he dresses simply, and can talk a language most ordinary Iranians understand.

World Takes Notice of Iran's Ahmadinejad

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Iran's president has been in office for just six months, but he's quickly made himself known to the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has questioned the Holocaust and Israel's right to exist. And he has defied the United States over his country's nuclear ambitions. Inside Iran, Ahmadinejad has taken his government on the road, giving speeches across the country, casting himself as a man of the people. NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Tehran.

MIKE SHUSTER: This month in Iran has been filled with symbolic significance, both political and religious.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)

SHUSTER: Here at the shrine for Ayatollah Khomeini on the outskirts of Tehran, thousands of Iranians came earlier this month to celebrate the founder of the Islamic revolution. And at the same moment mourn the grandson of the prophet Hussein, one of the great martyrs of Shiite Islam. And just as Iran's nuclear program was being debated at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was campaigning in Bushehr, the town on the Persian Gulf Coast where Iran's sole nuclear power plant is located.

MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: Oh, imaginary superpowers made of straw, Ahmadinejad told the crowd. Our people will continue until its rights on nuclear energy are completely achieved. Toward the U.S. Ahmadinejad was defiant, calling President Bush a warmonger and describing the U.S. as up to its elbows in the blood of other nations.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHANTING)

SHUSTER: The crowds answer him, chanting his name. This kind of rhetoric in Iran is nothing new. Iranian leaders have been vilifying the United States since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but what is new is Ahmadinejad's style. He dresses plainly and he speaks simply. Says political analyst political analyst Nasser Hadian of Tehran University, he appears to be on a permanent campaign across Iran.

NASSER HADIAN: And he tried to connect to the ordinary people. The people should, should somehow see and view the government not something out there at the center, very far from the daily life of the people. He would, he wants to bring them to the people. So these are all characteristics of a populist president and to some extent he has been successful in that regard.

SHUSTER: Last June, Ahmadinejad surprised Iran and the rest of the world when he came from relative obscurity as Tehran's mayor to best a field of half a dozen candidates, including a former Iranian president. He ran on a populist platform, promising a better life for poor Iranians, coupled with tirades against corruption, targeting the wealthier clergy and business classes alike.

His continuing campaign in office has certainly made Iranians pay attention, but it is not clear yet whether they are responding favorably or not, says sociologist Kian Tajbakhsh.

KIAN TAJBAKHSH: That's hard to gauge. We don't have many opinion polls. We don't have a broad range of voices with access to public media that could voice their assessments. The means that we would use to be able to gauge public discontent are relatively weak.

SHUSTER: Late last year Ahmadinejad made some remarks at a conference in Tehran that sparked immediate headlines around the world. Quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, he said Israel should be wiped off the map. Soon after that he began to question the Holocaust with speeches like this one in January.

AHMADINEJAD: (Foreign language spoken)

SHUSTER: We simply ask the Western powers a question, Ahmadinejad said. Your excuse and logic for supporting Zionist crimes and criminals is that 60 years ago, so you claim, during World War II, some of the Jews were burnt in crematoria. Why should the Palestinian people pay, he went on. Give them a piece of your land and the whole thing will be over. Political analyst Nasser Hadian believes at first Ahmadinejad was voicing his own long-held prejudices about Israel without thinking how the world would respond.

HADIAN: But later, when he saw that international reaction he thought possibly he can use that international reaction to establish himself as a strong leader among the Muslim masses.

SHUSTER: While these speeches have provoked a torrent of criticism from outside Iran, reaction inside the country has been relatively silent. Many of the more daring of the liberal newspapers and magazines have been shuttered. And even those candidates who ran against Ahmadinejad, like former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, are reluctant to challenge him now in public.

MEHDI KARROUBI: (Through Translator) I've got my own opinions about this, but I have decided to keep silent regarding his political views.

SHUSTER: Privately, though, there are many who are highly critical of Ahmadinejad's words and actions. One of those is Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a former government minister.

DAVOUD HERMIDAS BAVAND: This kind of a statement is irrelevant. It doesn't serve the Iranian national interest, particularly at the very complicated situationwhich we are in, vis-Ã -vis the United States, and also they have been able to mobilize international community against Iran. So in the light of such a complicated situation, making this kind of statement, it's damaging the Iranian interests as well.

SHUSTER: But some political analysts see a more cunning strategy at work in Ahmadinejad's anti-Holocaust campaign. Ahmadinejad and those who originally supported him, mainly from Iran's fanatic revolutionary guard and militia, do not approve of some of the more liberal, social, and economic changes that Iran has witnessed in recent years. They want to reintroduce what they see as revolutionary Islamic values. This kind of a campaign can aid them in this goal, says political analyst Seyyed Laylas(ph).

SEYYED LAYLAS: When you have real foreign enemy you can tell everybody to be silent and don't criticize the government and the regime.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHUSTER: The local neighborhood Mosque in North Tehran, women covered from head to toe in the black chador gather at its entrance as men and boys distribute a free meal and tea or cocoa from a makeshift booth just down the street. On the surface it looks like little has changed in Iran since Ahmadinejad's election. Below the surface some believe Iran's new president has already shaken up the religious and political establishment. Parvees Var Jarvon(ph), an opposition activist, believes a split has already emerged between what he calls the fundamentalists who support the president, and the traditional conservatives lead by Iran's supreme religious leader of 17 years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

PARVEES VAR JARVONA: (Through Translator) The faction that supports Mr. Ahmadinejad consists of a group of people who are opposing the clergies who have been dominant in Iran since the revolution.

SHUSTER: This split appears to have opened up just after Ahmadinejad took office. He was intent on cleaning house among government ministries and state factories and businesses. So Ayatollah Khamenei and others in the conservative camp took steps to limit Ahmadinejad's influence, especially in the national security and foreign policy fields, says Davoud Bavand.

HERMIDAS BAVAND: They knew from the beginning that it's dragging Iran to the point of quasi-catastrophe, in particularly foreign relationships. And therefore I do believe there is not a unity. The new group, the fundamentalists are still harping on the earlier revolutionary value, which has lost its credibility in the Iranian mind.

SHUSTER: By most accounts, though, Ahmadinejad has not accepted this attempt to circumscribe his influence and is fighting back, attempting by his campaign across Iran to keep the people on his side. He has made a lot of promises especially for the economy, which needs overhaul and a good deal of investment the government cannot afford.

Seyyed Laylas says many of those who now support Ahmadinejad may desert him if, as Laylas believes, the economy sinks deeper into stagnation.

LAYLAS: He has a few months opportunity to show that he is successful or not. Otherwise Iranian people, especially poor people who voted for him, are more impatient than his expectation.

SHUSTER: In that case, confrontation with the United States and Israel might just help Mahmoud Ahmadinejad extend his grip on Iran's complex political system. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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