Holding out for a hero

The disaffected masses who revere Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have one thing in common: they don't live in Iran.

Blow-up: American hawks and disgruntled Arabs share an inflated sense of Ahmadinejad's power.
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"Where are you from, my friend?" the merchant in Sharm Al-Sheikh asks me. I have been in enough bazaars in the Middle East to know the routine: I state my nationality (American), he makes a light joke about Rambo or Hollywood (avoiding politics), and then proceeds to hawk his goods to me at triple the going price. But this time I took a different tack: "Iranian," I said, citing my other nationality. "Iran?" the merchant responded, somewhat confused and pleasantly surprised. "Sit down," he said, and sent his assistant scurrying to get me a cup of tea. "Ahmadi- negadee," he said in the colloquial Egyptian way of referring to the Iranian president, "is number one. I love him. Very strong. Very good. America and Israel no good. Iran very good."

This type of talk, too, has become familiar to me. In my travels, from Casablanca to Karachi, I've been amazed at the appeal that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds on the so-called "street". A Cairo driver once refused payment from me in solidarity with "Negadee," another term used for the Iranian president. A Pakistani driver in Dubai spent nearly an hour with me extolling the virtues of "Ahmadi" as we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road. A Moroccan student of law asked me if I would use my contacts in Iran to send him an autographed photo of Ahmadinejad (at least he got his name right). And a young, secular Palestinian, in a nightclub in Beirut, showed his love in a manner the conservative Iranian president would likely have frowned upon: he bought a round of shots to toast Ahmadinejad.

I call these distant admirers of Ahmadinejad the Iran Romantics, and I have come to know them well. They are a diverse group, from the perennial grumbling taxi driver to the urbane campus professor. They have a few themes in common: they are frustrated with their own rulers, angry at US and Israeli policies — and most of them have never been to Iran. The latter is the critical point because if they had visited the country, they might be surprised to see that Ahmadinejad is more popular in Amman, Cairo, and Karachi than he is in Tehran, where his policies have stoked record inflation, impoverished Iranians and further isolated the country from the international community.

In Iran, members of parliament slam the Iranian president for his incendiary rhetoric, leading economists write open and angry letters decrying his policies, newspapers regularly criticise him on everything from inflation to his choice of ministers, and senior foreign ministry officials roll their eyes at the president's antics. Even senior members of Iran's conservative establishment - including top clerics - have unleashed some not-so-veiled criticism of the Iranian president.

At the time of his election in 2005 - he won the runoff with 60 per cent of the vote -Ahmadinejad was a popular figure in Iran, but not for the reasons the Iran Romantics cite; his appeal rested on populist bread-and-butter issues, and he campaigned on promises to crack down on corruption and restore economic equality. He spoke far more of the price of meat and onions than of Israel or uranium enrichment. Three years into his presidency, the price of meat and onions has soared in concert with his incendiary rhetoric blasting the US and Israel. Meanwhile, the relative freedoms Iranians enjoyed in the Mohammad Khatami era have withered.

So, why the appeal outside of Iran? Partly, it's easy to like Ahmadinejad. You can enjoy his speeches from afar. They do not affect your life. You do not face the sanctions or the poor policy choices that make life tough for ordinary Iranians, especially the poor. He also talks tough to the United States and Israel, always a winning card in today's Middle East. Like Latin Americans in the Sixties who revered Fidel Castro from afar but didn't have to live with his poor management of the state or Arabs who embraced Saddam Hussein but did not have to live with his repression at home, Ahmadinejad maintains a similar appeal.

The Iran Romantics also tend to oppose their own governments, whom they see as too closely allied with the United States, unresponsive to the people's needs and repressive. A middle-class Egyptian, frustrated with high prices and poor job prospects, and tired of President Hosni Mubarak, might romanticise Ahmadinejad as a leader who at least stands up to the West (though the Egyptian likely pays little attention to Iran's inflation or unemployment).

But cabdrivers in Cairo and Karachi aren't the only ones overestimating Ahmadinejad. The Iran Romantics have a counterpart in some Western and Arab capitals, where what you might call "Dark" Iran Romantics hold sway. They see an Iranian plot in every corner of the Middle East, a muscular Iranian military on the brink of nuclear capability about to annihilate Israel, and an Iran on the march with the capability of dominating the region.

The Dark Iran Romantic - including President George W Bush — sees Hamas, Hizbollah and Iraqi militia groups as mere pawns of Iran, and the world divided between moderate Muslims and those extremists aligned with Iran. This view fails to see the local driving forces of groups like Hizbollah, but also fails to see that the poor choices and corrupt practices of some of the so-called moderate Arab states have led their "streets" to embrace a false messiah like Ahmadinejad. It also fails to see that both Israel and the United States have their own history of poor choices that have alienated so many across the region.

The Dark Iran Romantic, too, has likely never visited Iran. If they had, they would see that its vaunted military machine is not as strong as it seems from the images splayed on television, and its population - and many of its top officials - are less interested in revolution, and more in normalisation. Iran's ageing military equipment gives it a distinct disadvantage in conventional wars; its military might is less real than imagined.

In short, Iran under Ahmadinejad talks loudly and carries a battered stick. It uses that stick to batter its own population, and it makes poor choices that further isolate Iran and stifle its extraordinary potential for growth. There is nothing romantic about that. To some extent, Ahmadinejad is following a well-trod path. Many an Arab autocrat has sought to deflect attention away from problems at home by pointing the finger abroad. Ironically, the Iranian street might be the least anti-American in the region. The issue of Palestine fails to resonate in Iran the way it does in Arab cities. Iranians don't watch Al-Jazeera (mostly because they don't understand Arabic) and, to some extent, they have Palestine fatigue given the amount of attention their government pays to the issue. As one Iranian shopkeeper told me: "Why are we spending so much time and money on Palestine and Hizbollah? What about us Iranians?"

Iran could become a true regional power (rather than a flailing and underperforming one) if it concentrated on channelling its oil wealth into productive development, lowered its rhetoric, engaged more responsibly with its region, and showed a willingness to bury the hatchet with the United States. Though Ahmadinejad may lose the admiration of some of the Iran Romantics in Cairo's bazaars, he stands to gain something more important: the support of his own people.

Afshin Molavi, the author of The Soul of Iran, has covered Iran and the Middle East for the Washington Post and Reuters.