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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 December 2005, 17:00 GMT
Testing times for Iran president
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

They sit on the floor draped in black chador and swathed in gloves eating oranges, their faces just peeking out.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Mr Ahmadinejad appears to be facing diminishing support

Both women and men in the Shafi'e family belong to the Basij - an armed Islamic volunteer group mobilised around the mosques.

It is hardly the typical Basij family we had asked to meet - one lady commands nearly 2,000 women.

The Basij are the loyalists of the Islamic regime who can be called out onto the streets at times of crisis to use force to dispel dissent.

And by mobilising voters they helped elect Iran's new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - himself a former Basij instructor.

"He's only been in power for three months and look at the pressure he's faced from abroad," says Masoud Shafi'e about the new president.

Clearing slums

It struck a chord here when the new president turned his back on reform and revived the original slogan of the Islamic revolution: "Justice for the down-trodden".

"The main issue is that Mr Ahmadinejad is seeking justice for all," says Mohammad Qadiri'e, adding, "he is trying to fight corruption and restrict the power of big business."

People need some kind of freedom and they've got used to having it
One Iranian girl

Already people are complaining about the rising cost of living, but here they say prices are reasonable.

"Some people want to link everything to Mr Ahmadinejad, even the price of oranges," says Basij commander Maryam Qadiri'e.

While mayor of Tehran, Mr Ahmadinejad concentrated his efforts on poorer, more conservative areas of the south of the city.

He cleared slums, built sports centres and tried to alleviate Tehran's appalling traffic.

All the while, he insisted on an Islamic agenda - ensuring council officials visited at least one "martyr's family" every week, honouring those who died in the Iran-Iraq war.

Political uncertainty

But in north Tehran, where the wealthy and more westernised people live, they are more wary about Mr Ahmadinejad.

Here young girls parade up and down in tight overcoats, high heels, pink headscarves and bleached hair while the boys have gel in their hair, pointy shoes and sport cool shades.

"In the early days, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the full support of the leader but as time goes by that support is diminishing
Issa Saharkhiz
Political commentator

In the early days of the revolution they would have been stopped and asked if they were married. Now, after eight years of reformist rule, the atmosphere has relaxed.

"People need some kind of freedom and they've got used to having it," explains one girl.

"After Mr Khatami, they got used to the freedoms they've had and they can't take them away again; it will be very difficult if they want to roll things back."

So far there is no sign of a clamp-down on Islamic dress codes, but there is dissatisfaction here about the prevailing political uncertainty.

"I think the president is not up to running the country and I don't even know what he was thinking about when he stood as a candidate in the elections," says a student, adding, "he is just not politically astute enough."

Israel remarks

But in the university, there is already concern about a process of Islamisation.

For the first time since the revolution, the president appointed an ayatollah to run Tehran.

Basij
Basij militias are loyalists of the Islamic regime

Risking arrest, the students protested.

In the scuffle the cleric's turban was removed and slogans shouted against the president.

Internationally, the greatest damage was done by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's remark that Israel should be wiped off the map.

He was quoting the father of the Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini - but succeeded in uniting the world against Iran.

Some reformists, like former Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh, believe this remark played into the hands of Iran's enemies.

"I believe the neo-cons in America need to portray Iran as a kind of Taleban government, a belligerent country that doesn't want to negotiate and wants to cause tension in the region," he says, adding: "Ahmadinejad's behaviour and his statements have given the Americans a wonderful opportunity to exploit."

Weakening support

So intense has criticism of the new president been that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to defend him.

He said Mr Ahmadinejad should be given more time to fulfil his election promises.

Rejecting his candidate does not mean undermining the president
Hamidreza Taraghi
Islamic Coalition Party

Some argue the leader is distancing himself from Mr Ahmadinejad and growing closer to his election rival Hashemi Rafsanjani.

"In the early days, Ahmadinejad enjoyed the full support of the leader but as time goes by that support is diminishing," says political commentator Issa Saharkhiz.

"The leader sees the problems Ahmadinejad has created and he is trying to distance himself , while at the same time publicly showing support for him."

Mr Rafsanjani recently launched a veiled but stinging attack on the new president - accusing him of jeopardising the security of the Islamic system by instigating a purge against officials loyal to the old regime.

"If one listens to Mr Rafsanjani's words very carefully, it is evident that he is seriously concerned about the situation in the country, and has serious problems with the way the new government is running the country," says Mustafa Tajzadeh.

And if the markets are anything to go by, there has been a problem.

The Tehran stock exchange lost a quarter of its value since Mr Ahmadinejad came to power - the largest fall in its history - though it has now started to rise again.

Permits for construction of new buildings have halved in recent months as investors become increasingly wary.

And it has not helped that for months parliament has refused to endorse three of the president's choices for oil minister - saying they lacked sufficient experience.

Power struggle

Moreover, some of Mr Ahmadinejad's own supporters voted against him, but denied they were confronting him.

"Rejecting his candidate does not mean undermining the president," says Hamidreza Taraghi of the Islamic Coalition Party.

"From an Islamic point of view, the best friends are those who remind you of your faults."

He believes the president is challenging powerful vested interests and that is why he is facing opposition.

"There are too many people in the administration who are involved in corruption and misuse of their positions. That's why he has ended the contracts of many government advisers," says Mr Taraghi.

For the reformists, Mr Ahmadinejad is an extremist bent on confronting his enemies at home and abroad.

But millions of Iranians who voted for Mr Ahmadinejad were attracted by his humble image and promise of a better economic life.

Already there are signs of a bitter power struggle at the top and it is far from clear whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's radical agenda will dominate, or more moderate voices will prevail.


Frances Harrison's film will be broadcast by Newsnight on BBC Two on Wednesday, 7 December, 2005 at 2230 GMT




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