To gauge whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is really on the ropes, a notion the Western press finds attractive (see for example a Feb. 7 Los Angeles Times article by Kim Murphy), the Financial Times sent reporter Gareth Smyth to Ardabil in northwestern Iran this week.[1]  --  The governorship of Ardabil province, which he assumed in 1993, was Ahmadinejad’s first post of national importance.  --  Ardabil is also of interest in this respect because the majority of the city’s population consists of Azeris, Iran’s largest minority ethnic group.  --  Some persons there were critical of Ahmadinejad, but the Ardabil chief of the official Islamic Republic News Agency said the Iranian president is “still Iran’s most popular politician.”  --  Western media, the Financial Times included, often seem committed to portraying the contrary view.  --  For whatever reason, on Friday, without explanation, the Financial Times posted two almost identical stories from the same journalists and appearing at exactly the same time.  --  Both were internally self-contradictory and they also contradicted each other.[2,3]  --  Only one of the stories carried these cryptic sentences:  “The most senior clerics in Qom have for some time been sceptical about Mr. Ahmadinejad's policies, and apparently rebuffed his efforts to meet them in Qom on Wednesday.  --  A Rafsanjani ally admitted that Mr. Ahmadinejad retained the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei but added Mr. Rafsanjani's initiative was ‘part of a process that will bear fruit in time.’”  --  These sentences undercut openings of both stories, which refer to Rafsanjani’s “public challenge to the leadership's handling of the crisis surrounding its nuclear program” and speak of Rafsanjani’s effort “to foster consensus among senior ayatollahs against the radical approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president.”  --  The fact that there is no ayatollah senior to Khamenei would seem to invalidate the notion of “consensus among senior ayatollahs” spoken of here....

1.

In depth

Iran

IRANIAN PRESIDENT WEATHERS FALLING POPULARITY
By Gareth Smyth

Financial Times (UK)
February 9, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/a62b2332-b8ac-11db-be2e-0000779e2340.html

On the day in 1993 that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Ardabil, the north-western Iranian city, there was a meter of snow and his aircraft was diverted. It was an inauspicious start to his four-year tenure as governor of Ardabil province -- his first senior position on his way to becoming president.

But such difficulties pale in comparison with the situation Mr. Ahmadinejad now faces after a wave of criticism of his economic and foreign policies in both parliament and the media in recent weeks.

With more experience of Mr. Ahmadinejad than most fellow Iranians, the inhabitants of Ardabil are today an important gauge of the president’s popularity. Furthermore, as Azeris, the largest minority ethnic group in Iran’s 70m population, they also indicate the strength of Iranian nationalism as concern grows over U.S. or Israeli attacks on the country’s nuclear sites.

Karim Niroumand, Ardabil chief of the official Islamic Republic News Agency, remembers Mr. Ahmadinejad as an active governor in building roads and dealing with the 1997 earthquake. Boyout Jamaei, then the provincial director of cultural heritage, recalls a hands-on chief. “He was very open with managers.”

Views are mixed on the streets of Ardabil city, home to 500,000 people. “His support has fallen since his [landslide 2005] election win but he’s still Iran’s most popular politician,” says Mr. Niroumand.

Local activists also feel Mr. Ahmadinejad could benefit as U.S.-led pressure encourages nationalism, which in a deeply religious city such as Ardabil is bound up with popular forms of Shia Islam. “When he was governor he always supported mosques and Islamic associations,” says one.

The links between nationalism and religion were evident this week at the shrine in Ardabil of Sheikh Safi, a 13th-century Muslim mystic whose descendants became kings of Iran.

As part of celebrations for the 28th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, which culminate on Sunday in nationwide rallies -- including one in Tehran that the president is expected to address -- school children have been visiting the shrine.

Teachers’ explanations to their pupils reveal no sense that the 1979 Islamic Revolution broke from 2,500 years of monarchy. Rather, they stress continuity in centuries of resistance to foreign “interference.”

One lumped together as “looting” both the Russians removing historical artefacts when they held the city in the early 19th century and the 1892 purchase of the shrine’s “Ardabil carpet” by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

At a popular level, concern over possible U.S. attacks is vying with worries over the economy, which Mr. Ahmadinejad identifies as a priority.

Today’s governor, Ali Nikzad, once Mr. Ahmadinejad’s deputy, this week opened a factory in Namin, a small town 20km north-east of Ardabil -- expressing his approval for the state-led development the president favors. “Jobs are about security, the economy, and politics,” he said.

The factory’s German-made machinery, for producing industrial packaging, was bought with low-interest government loans from the Oil Stabilization Fund, which collects oil revenues.

A second phase will be financed with loans from state banks instructed by Mr. Ahmadinejad to lend for job creation projects at 7 per cent, half the standard 14 per cent rate. The government has claimed Ardabil province will receive up to 650bn tomans ($704m), with individual loans varying from 10m to 1bn tomans.

Critics of such schemes say they are inflationary.

Javad Zanjani, a city councillor and a supporter of pragmatic former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, insists unemployment is rising: “Government job creation schemes may be popular but they’re useless without proper feasibility studies.”

Mr. Zanjani also stresses the capital flight and investment shortages resulting from international tension.

Mansour Sayfi, an official with Motalefeh, the conservative party with strong business links, has a different view of government economic performance.

He says it is too early to criticize Mr. Ahmadi-Nejad, who inherited problems from previous governments, and that the poor showing of his list in December’s local elections -- wining two of nine seats in Ardabil city -- reflected divisions among conservatives rather than the president’s standing.

But Mr. Sayfi shares the view that Iranians will not be cowed by economic sanctions or military strikes. “People with a deep sense of history don’t frighten easily,” he says.

2.

RAFSANJANI WARNS IRAN ON POTENTIAL U.S. ATTACK
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Gareth Smyth

Financial Times (UK)
February 9, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/a092ae74-b7e2-11db-bfb3-0000779e2340.html

QOM -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former Iranian president, yesterday warned of the grave consequences for Iran of a possible U.S. attack, in a public challenge to the leadership's handling of the crisis surrounding its nuclear program.

Mr. Rafsanjani was speaking during a visit to the holy city of Qom, where he was seeking to foster consensus among senior ayatollahs against the radical approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, reiterated yesterday that Tehran would retaliate against any attack by targeting U.S. interests round the world.

"The enemy knows well that any aggression would face an all-out reaction of the Iranian nation towards the aggressors and their interests in all parts of the world," he was quoted as saying by state television. "Some people say that the U.S. president is not prone to calculating the consequences of his actions but it is possible to bring this kind of person to wisdom."

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated in recent weeks as Washington adopts a more confrontational policy towards what it sees as Iranian attempts to fuel Iraqi violence.

The U.S. has also stepped up financial sanctions against Iran and has been pressing European allies to join in with tougher European sanctions. The EU has refused to accede to Washington's demands to increase sanctions on Tehran over and above the U.N.-mandated measures, however.

British diplomats argue that the EU needs to first put into place the U.N. measures, which focus on preventing the export and financing of technology related to Iran's nuclear and missile programs. They add that the bloc could look at additional measures after Mohamed El Baradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reports back on February 21 on Iran's response to the U.N.'s demands.

Within the EU, the U.K. is the champion of tougher measures, while Italy, which historically grants more credits for exports to Iran than any other member state, wants to give greater focus to negotiations.

Pro-western Arab states have also moved to check Iranian influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which claims Iran is seeking to exploit the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has been hosting warring Palestinian factions, hoping to convince them to reach agreement on a national unity government.

The U.S. insists it has no intention of attacking Iran but fears about military action have intensified since U.S. forces last month captured five Iranians in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil. Earlier this week, Iran also blamed the U.S. for the kidnapping of a diplomat in Baghdad.

Tehran has been seeking to show it can stand up to a U.S. attack, staging a new round of war games this week. But there has been growing debate over how Iran should manage the crisis. The most senior clerics in Qom have for some time been sceptical about Mr. Ahmadinejad's policies, and apparently rebuffed his efforts to meet them in Qom on Wednesday.

A Rafsanjani ally admitted that Mr. Ahmadinejad retained the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei but added Mr. Rafsanjani's initiative was "part of a process that will bear fruit in time."

--Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey

3.

RAFSANJANI WARNS IRAN OF A U.S. ATTACK’S GRAVE CONSEQUENCES
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Gareth Smyth

Financial Times (UK)
February 9, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/d490cd24-b7e1-11db-bfb3-0000779e2340.html

QOM -- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former Iranian president, has warned of the grave consequences for Iran of a possible U.S. attack, in a public challenge to the leadership's handling of the crisis surrounding its nuclear program.

Mr. Rafsanjani was speaking yesterday during a visit to the holy city of Qom, where he was seeking to foster consensus among senior ayatollahs against the radical approach of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, reiterated that Tehran would retaliate against any attack by targeting U.S. interests round the world.

"The enemy knows well that any aggression would face an all-out reaction of the Iranian nation towards the aggressors and their interests in all parts of the world," he was quoted as saying by state television. "Some people say that the U.S. president is not prone to calculating the consequences of his actions but it is possible to bring this kind of person to wisdom."

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated as Washington adopts a more confrontational policy towards what it sees as Iranian attempts to fuel Iraqi violence. The U.S. has stepped up financial sanctions against Iran and has been pressing European allies to join in with tougher sanctions. The EU has refused to accede to U.S. demands to increase sanctions on Tehran, however.

British diplomats argue that the EU needs to first put into place the U.N. measures, which focus on preventing the export and financing of technology related to Iran's nuclear and missile programs. They add that the bloc could look at additional measures after Mohamed El Baradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reports back on February 21 on Iran's response to the U.N.'s demands.

Within the EU, the U.K. is the champion of tougher measures, while Italy, which historically grants more credits for exports to Iran than any other member state, wants to give greater focus to negotiations. Pro-Western Arab states have moved to check Iranian influence in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, which claims Iran is seeking to exploit the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has been hosting warring Palestinian factions, hoping to convince them to reach agreement on a national unity government.

Fears about military action have intensified since U.S. forces last month captured five Iranians in the northern Iraqi Kurdish city of Arbil. However, Robert Gates, U.S. defense secretary, in Seville for a NATO meeting said the U.S. had "no intention of attacking Iran."

Tehran has been seeking to show it can stand up to the U.S., staging war games this week.

Asked about the Iranian missile firings and the rhetoric by the Iranian supreme leader, Mr. Gates said it was "just another day in the Persian Gulf."

--Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey