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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 October 2006, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
On tour with Iran's president
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad
President Ahmadinejad has called himself a friend of the people

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been visiting hundreds of small towns and rural communities in an effort to meet the people. Frances Harrison followed him to the town of Shahriar, outside the capital Tehran.

There is an expression in Persian - "Do you think I come from behind the mountain?" It is these "behind the mountain", back of beyond places that Mr Ahmedinejad has made a point of visiting since his election.

Often we have to consult a map when he pops up live on Iranian TV in some place we have never heard of.

When Mr Ahmadinejad goes on one of his trips, journalists have to gather at the presidential palace hours early for security checks.

Formal complaint

I was directed through the women's security channel and a rather sour lady dressed in a black chador refused to let me through.

She kept on saying she had to "co-ordinate", making telephone calls to her bosses. Several times I had to emerge from her checking cubicle to call my male colleagues to tell them I was being held up.

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Shahriar
Thousands and thousands of people came to see the president - segregated with women on one side and men the other

We were bundled on to non-air-conditioned buses stuffed with plain clothes intelligence men and driven off beyond the south of Tehran.

To my surprise, a journalist sitting behind me tried to interview me about the fact that the Iranian Embassy in London had lodged a formal complaint about my reporting of their reaction to the North Korean test.

Later, the same people who had complained conceded it was not my report they were unhappy with but that did not stop them broadcasting the allegations against me on state run television that night.

We arrived in the dusty town of Shahriar to find the streets bedecked with posters of the president.

As we were led into a sports stadium security officials spoke into their walkie talkies saying "we're bringing the foreigners in now".

Emotional hunger

Bearded men we did not know kept walking past muttering about the BBC. A security woman in a chador called Mrs Rezaie was assigned to keep watch over me. At first she told members of the public not to speak to me; later on she disappeared having found it impossible to control the crowd.

Thousands and thousands of people came to see the president - segregated with women on one side and men the other.

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad in Shahriar
One year after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power these people still have faith that he will change their lives

Officials were gathering armfuls of letters and petitions written by the crowd. Scraps of lined paper torn out of exercise books with hand written pleas on them.

Women were actually weeping because they could not get to talk to Mr Ahmadinejad. They could not understand that he was not able to have personal audiences with them.

What surprised me was the emotional hunger, the neediness of these people, their desperation. Most were very poor and not highly educated.

Several old ladies told me they wanted the president to give them a house. Another sought help with medical treatment for her husband - a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war.

A mother wanted the president to do something about her son's problems - he was serving in the army. Another lady thought the president should sort out the drug problem in Iran.

One year after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power these people still have faith that he will change their lives. Elsewhere in Tehran there are rumblings about the president's failure to curb the rising price of food but here the poor still believe in him.

Anti-Western mood

Interviewing the crowd proved problematic. As soon as we started talking to one woman someone had the bright idea of sabotaging the interview by urging the crowd to shout "death to America" very loudly.

Later a teacher told me they had thought I was American.

The mood was very anti Western - several times people told the crowd not to tell us their problems because we were from the foreign media and could not be trusted.

Strange people kept coming up to offer us interviews and then turning on us saying why did we want to present a negative view of Iran.

When we left we received a call from the president's office. They said we were not allowed to broadcast any of the interviews we had done with the crowd.

We said we would then have to announce that we had been censored.

They threatened us with cutting off all co-operation in future. Then the Ministry of Islamic Guidance telephoned to repeat the warning.

The bizarre aspect was that everyone we had interviewed had been positive about the president - one young girl had even said she had come to get a glimpse of him from afar - like a film star.

I have to confess I never actually saw the president. I was inside the stadium but in a press enclosure at the far side of the stage. So much for my first and probably last trip with him.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 14 October, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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