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Iranians frustrated under hard-line leader

Thursday, January 18, 2007

(Photo)
An Iranian woman carried her groceries in a supermarket in northern Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday.
(Vahid Salemi ~ Associated Press)
TEHRAN, Iran -- Prices for vegetables have tripled in the past month, housing prices have doubled since last summer -- and as costs have gone up, so has Iranians' discontent with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his focus on confrontation with the West.

Ahmadinejad was elected last year on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenue to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. Now he is facing increasingly fierce criticism for his failure to meet those promises.

He is being challenged not only by reformers but by the conservatives who paved the way for his stunning victory in 2005 presidential elections. Even conservatives say Ahmadinejad has concentrated too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy -- and they have become more aggressive in calling him to account.

"The government has painted idealistic goals like tackling housing problems and unemployment ... but no solution has been offered," said Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a prominent conservative lawmaker, said.

Ahmadinejad's government "has been strong on populist slogans but weak on achievement," said Khoshchehreh, who campaigned for Ahmadinejad during the election.

The president has touted himself as a tough anti-Western leader, frequently denouncing the United States.

At the same time, he has aggressively pushed ahead Iran's nuclear program, shrugging off U.N. demands that the country halt uranium enrichment. As a result, the United Nations in December imposed sanctions on Iran.

The sanctions were limited to a ban on selling materials and technology that could be used in Iran's nuclear and missile programs and the freezing of assets of 10 Iranian companies and individuals.

But since then the price of fruit, vegetables and other widely used commodities in Iran -- already rising -- have skyrocketed, apparently because of fears of harsher punishment.

The inflation has hit Iranians hard, along with unemployment, which the government puts at 10 percent but economists say could be as high as 30 percent. The government also says inflation is 11 percent, but experts estimate it at 30 percent.

Tehran housewife Maryam Hatamkhani, 28, said her family has given up buying potatoes and tomatoes because prices have tripled or quadrupled in the past month. Tomatoes have gone from around 33 cents a pound to $1.50.

"People are really under pressure. We are unhappy. Instead of bringing welfare, this government has given us hardship," she said.

Lawmakers summoned Ahmadinejad's Housing Minister Mohammad Saeedikia to parliament for questioning over the rising prices, which he blamed on increasing demand. He promised a plan to control prices, but gave no specifics.

In a sign of the growing discontent, the president's allies suffered a humiliating defeat in December local elections, carried by reformists and anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives.

Since then, Ahmadinejad's critics have become bolder, denouncing his nuclear policies, long seen as above criticism and an issue of national pride.

Reformist and conservative lawmakers are considering calling Ahmadinejad before parliament to answer questions about his nuclear diplomacy and economic policies. So far no date has been set for summoning him.

Some 150 lawmakers signed a letter last week calling on Ahmadinejad's government to reconsider its draft budget for next year. Lawmakers called the draft too dependent on oil revenue. Iran roughly makes about 80 percent of its revenue from oil exports.

Even the president's globe-trotting has come under fire. He has made several trips to Asia and Africa, burnishing his reputation as a world leader who can stand up to the United States. This week, he was in Latin America, meeting presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and other anti-U.S. figures.

"Do you really assume people like Chavez (and) Ortega ... can be Iran's strategic allies?" the reformist daily Etemad-e-Melli said in an editorial Tuesday addressing Ahmadinejad. "We should not build a house on water."


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