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Last Updated: Monday, 26 February 2007, 14:45 GMT
Political problems mount for Ahmadinejad
As world powers seek new ways to put pressure on Iran, Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of politics at Tehran University, looks at how much popular support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has at home.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Criticism against has been coming from all political quarters
No-one had expected Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to face such a strong barrage of criticism at home so soon after his impressive election victory more than 18 months ago.

In the past few weeks, criticism has been coming from all political quarters, the left, the reformists, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, influential conservative figures and even some of his hardline allies.

Ever since his election victory in July 2005, Mr Ahmadinejad has been on the offensive.

Iranian officials responsible for handling the country's nuclear negotiations with the International Atomic Agency and European countries were lambasted for "acting weakly and being too docile to the wishes of the decadent Western powers".

Praised

Imitating the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he sent a message to the American people, advised US President George W Bush to reconsider his policies, and suggested that one solution to the century-old Arab Israeli conflict would be to carry out a referendum among Jews and Palestinians to decide the future of Israel.

Hashemi Rafsanjani
Hashemi Rafsanjan is among those who has criticised the president
He also questioned the historical truth of the Holocaust and his officials organised a controversial international conference on the subject.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, repeatedly gave his backing to the president.

At a meeting during the holy month of Ramadan in October last year he warned critics to observe "fairness and honesty" when expressing their views on a president who was working so hard for the poor.

Criticism

As late as November, Mr Ahmadinejad's star was still on the rise.

However, things were not looking good on the economic front.

When he took office, Mr Ahmadinejad promised to raise the standard of living for the huge number of Iranians living in poverty. Many of the 17 million people who voted for him did so in the expectation that he would create jobs, curb inflation and alleviate poverty.

Bushehr nuclear reactor
Iran says its nuclear regime is peaceful
Instead, inflation has risen, there has been no decline in unemployment and there have been huge price rises in the housing sector. The gap between rich and the poor has shown no sign of narrowing.

The first doubts about his performance came from within the president's own camp.

The head of the Majlis' (Iranian parliament) Research Office, an influential body that advises deputies on important issues, criticised Mr Ahmadinejad for drawing "unreservedly and without much consideration" from the country's oil revenues special fund.

Ahmad Tavakoli, a leading hardliner and an economy expert, criticised the government for almost emptying the reserves. Another influential deputy and a leader of the government faction accused the government of "lacking any direction".

Election defeat

Mr Ahmadinejad did not respond to these remarks and continued very much as before. The turning point, however, came during the municipal elections in early December. They were the first national elections since his victory.

At the beginning of the campaign, everyone assumed that the election would be a battle between hardliners championed by the president on the one hand, and reformists on the other.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad campaigns to be president of Iran
Mr Ahmadinejad won an impressive election victory in 2005
It was widely assumed that the conservatives would either win or, at least, take most of the seats. But, as the campaign unfolded, it became increasingly apparent that there was a serious division among the hardliners. The reason was clear. The overconfident president had refused to agree on a compromised list of candidates with the other conservatives.

As a result, and to the astonishment of most Iranians, the hardliners entered the elections with two different lists in many constituencies. The election results were catastrophic for Mr Ahmadinejad, particularly in critical seats such as Tehran and some other major cities.

The defeat, followed by the imposition of UN sanctions against Iran in December 2006, unleashed a barrage of criticism against the president. His handling of the economy and his foreign policy were the focus of the strongest censure.

The supreme leader did not meet the president for nearly three months, perhaps because of these criticisms.

For his part, Mr Ahmadinejad did not respond to his critics until the two-month period that the UN Security Council had given Iran expired last week.

In a huge gathering in Rasht, the northern province of Gilan the president repeated his hard-line stand over the country's nuclear programme. Many had expected that the president would soften his tone over the nuclear issue. But he repeated his resolute stand that Iran would not give in to the US pressure.

As long as the people stood behind the country's nuclear programme, he said, his government would do everything at its disposal to advance it.

Whether or not the nuclear issue will strengthen the weakened president's position remains to be seen. What is certain however, he is determined to stand firm on the issue.


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