TEL AVIV — Iranians living abroad are ashamed of him. Wealthy Iranian entrepreneurs and political moderates shudder at every word he utters, especially on foreign policy. Foreign leaders and analysts have called him a “great danger” to the region. Israel's Iranian-born former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, has likened him to Adolf Hitler.
Yet to millions of Iranians, far more than the West can imagine, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a rather popular guy.
Barring his outbursts denying the extent of the Holocaust and threatening Israel with annihilation, Mr. Ahmadinejad is saying and doing what a majority of Iranians want to hear. The key to his success is that he has learned who the average Iranian is and what he or she wants. The West has not.
In fact, the West has it completely wrong. Unlike reports in the Western media, the average Iranian is not the well-dressed, lipstick-wearing woman of northern Tehran who speaks with Western reporters about Channel, Gucci and Jennifer Lopez. The average Iranian is from the lower income brackets and lives outside Tehran.
Since taking office, Mr. Ahmadinejad has done much to reach out to these people, who live mostly in rural areas. This is not only because his origin is provincial. Former President Mohammad Khatami and the president before him, Hashemi Rafsanjani, also were from the provinces, but they treated Tehran as if it represented Iran. Through his constant trips to the provinces (13 so far), Mr. Ahmadinejad has made non-Tehranis feel as if they also belong to Iran.
More important, Mr. Ahmadinejad is putting his money where his mouth is. In his budget approved in December, expenditures in rural areas increased by as much as 180 percent in his first year as president.
The rural population in Iran likes and appreciates him for his generosity because in the years before Mr. Ahmadinejad, those outside Tehran were treated as if they were distant relatives when it came to government investment and expenditure. This appreciation of the president exists even though far more of the rural population made sacrifices for the sake of the 1979 Islamic revolution than were made by residents of Tehran.
So these days, when “their” man is in town, rural Iranians turn up in the hundreds of thousands to greet him. Many of the people want to share their problems with him. This became apparent recently when, during a trip to Golestan Province in the northeast, 135,000 letters addressed to Mr. Ahmadinejad were handed to his delegation and to him personally by people in the crowd.
Mr. Ahmadinejad's popularity, boosted by his image of being incorruptible, is not confined to his ability to woo rural crowds. He also knows how to stroke the nationalistic feelings of city dwellers, even reformists.
As some Israeli officials foolishly called for banning the Iranian national soccer team from the World Cup, Mr. Ahmadinejad turned himself into Iran's most senior football fan by urging that women be allowed to attend soccer matches. Senior ayatollahs vetoed him. But his stance won him many positive points throughout the country, especially in the big cities, where women's movements have been more active.
Further, his image in Iran as a pragmatic leader who is ready for negotiations has been buttressed by his being the first president in post-revolutionary Iran whose government agreed to direct, open talks with the United States.
His letter to President Bush was dismissed in the West as a lecture. But to many Iranians, it showed that Mr. Ahmadinejad is ready for dialogue.
An example of how Mr. Ahmadinejad uses the strength derived from his popularity at home to deal with foreign policy surfaced Thursday. That's when he announced that Iran would wait until August to respond to the latest offer by the United States and five European countries to provide incentives if Tehran halts its nuclear program. The West believes Iran plans to develop nuclear weapons.
By agreeing to negotiate with the West, Mr. Ahmadinejad improves his image as a reasonable man at home and abroad. His ability to tell the Europeans and the Americans to wait two months for his decision boosts his popularity further because it makes him look as if he is a strong and decisive leader. Unfortunately for the United States and the European Union, there is not much they can do other than wait for Mr. Ahmadinejad to decide.
He is aware that many of his actions have given him a positive image at home, and uses this to his advantage. Acting as a man of the people, Mr. Ahmadinejad has been very successful in convincing the Iranian public that the country's nuclear program is a nationalistic issue, belonging to them and not only to the government. This explains why the overwhelming majority of Iranians back him over an issue that presents a thorny problem for the Middle East and the West.
To the West, Mr. Ahmadinejad, with his fiery religious and anti-Israeli rhetoric, is a man who should be isolated. This is understandable. His foreign policies have created many external enemies for him. But when it comes to internal policies, Mr. Ahmadinejad's successes and genuine popularity can only be ignored at the West's peril.
This article was first published in the Balitomore Sun.
Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-born Middle East Analyst and the Director or the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, meepas.com. He has been quoted and interviewed by the BBC, Radio Holland International, Haaretz Newspaper and the Boston Globe as well as a number of other newspapers and Radio stations. For rights to quote this article please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.