Women scream for Ahmadinejad
- Iran's president arrives on a US-made helicopter -
an evangelist from the sky
Ahmadinejad and his adoring public
Simon Tisdall in Meshkinshahr, Iran
Saturday August 19, 2006
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves from his office in Tehran.
He arrives amid a hurricane of swirling brown dust and deafening
noise. A dense, rolling cloud of straw and dirt sweeps across the
parched field, enveloping turbaned dignitaries, battering the hoisted
green, white and red flags of Iran, and forcing thousands of
enthralled onlookers to shield their eyes.
As the rotors of the venerable American-made Huey 214 chopper spin
slowly to a halt, and the murk clears, a great, human noise replaces
the sound of engines. It is not cheering; more like a giant, murmuring
sigh, punctuated by shouts of joy and the screams of women.
For Meshkinshahr, a city perched on the desiccated Caspian steppes and
mountains west of Ardabil, this dramatic descent to earth has the
momentous significance of a prophetic visitation. Local elders say
there has been nothing like it in years. Children are out of their
heads with excitement.
But President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, clambering out of the helicopter
cabin with a big smile on his face, is getting used to it. His visit,
part of a magisterial three-day, nine-city procession through Ardabil
province in north-west Iran, is the 18th such meet-the-people
expedition since he took office one year ago this month.
Mr Ahmadinejad's extraordinary comings and goings are a cross between
American-style town meetings, itinerant Islamic evangelism, and pure
political theatre. Think Bill and Al's "excellent adventure" during
the 1992 US presidential campaign; think Saladin on a soap box; then
add a straggly beard, wrinkly, unexpectedly twinkly eyes, a gentle,
open-handed style, and a genuine ability to connect - and you have Mr
Ahmadinejad, a local hero (he was formerly governor of Ardabil), a
would-be champion of Muslims everywhere, and an unlikely grassroots
The political confidence of a man condemned in the US and Europe for
his threats against Israel and his Holocaust denial is plainly
growing. It is the first time the Tehran government has allowed a
western reporter to witness one of his barnstorming tours. And there
is lots to watch.
"We love him. We love Ahmadinejad," says Mahnaz Dargahi, a young woman
in her 20s dressed in full hijab and ankle-length chador, who is
watching a rally in Nir. "He's very popular. He does a lot for the
youth. His focus is on the development of the country and on the poor
people." Her friends nod in agreement, giggle, then pull their scarves
closer to their faces.
"He is a nice man," says Nafice Mohammadzade, 10, the daughter of an
Iran-Iraq war martyr, after presenting the president with a bouquet.
"He asked my name and what grade I'm in. He said he hoped I would make
progress in life and in Islam." Nafice was given a plastic
presidential ballpoint and a scroll.
"We welcome the president," says Ahmad Asaadi, 40, a Turkish-speaking
man in the town of Parsabad Moghan. "He's defending our country. He
cares about people. He's hard-working. We need more jobs here. He
understands the problems we have with schools, with bureaucracy, with
the water. He will do something for us."
Speaking from a platform decorated with flowers and Qur'anic verses in
the city of Ardabil, Mr Ahmadinejad does not disappoint an exultant
crowd of up to 20,000 spilling over the pitch of a football stadium.
Facing him is a sea of banners and photographs of himself and
Ayatollah Khomeini, leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. Two young men
have climbed to the top of a floodlight gantry and are frantically
waving the flags of Iran, Palestine and Hizbullah.
Men and women are strictly segregated behind crash barriers, and local
clerics and other luminaries sit cross-legged in a special enclosure
at the front. All but the most ancient mullahs are waving, shouting,
hooting and chanting phrases such as "Ahmadinejad, you have the scent
of rosewater" and "Nuclear power is our essential right" (it sounds
better in Farsi).
The young men, packed tightly together, are heaving with excitement
and energy. The women, the majority under 25, seem to be drowning in
black, only the white ovals of their faces standing out from their
robes. But they, too, are hopping and prancing (dancing and singing
is, of course, forbidden). It is like a pop festival without the music.
Mr Ahmadinejad may not know much about the Holocaust.* But he
certainly knows how to work a crowd. He begins slowly, softly, talking
to his audience as if to friends. He is no ranter, no demagogue. His
words caress and seduce, they do not impose or dictate. But then, with
the crowd's voice rising and falling with his own, his address gathers
pace, strength and purpose. "We will build a railroad from Ardabil to
Tehran," the president announces to loud cheers. This is a
long-delayed project. Now, magically, it has the go-ahead. "We will
build a petrochemical plant." Another cheer. "We will reduce the
interest rate on loans so young people can get jobs and start their
The cacophony of applause just grows and grows. And down on the pitch,
aides collect bundles of letters and written pleas for financial or
other help, all of which they say will receive the president's
Like a Persian emperor of old, but dressed in a circa 1970s casual
fawn jacket, Mr Ahmadinejad dispenses favours and justice with a flick
of his wrist. His modern-day satraps, Ardabil's governor and MP, watch
nervously, wondering, perhaps, how they will pay for all this largesse.
Then he switches to international affairs. The US and Britain "have
disgraced the UN security council by opposing a ceasefire in Lebanon",
he says. Cheers. Lebanon is "the real Holocaust". The impotent council
should be renamed the "council for massacres". More cheers. "God's
promises have come true. On one side there are the corrupt powers of
the criminal US and Britain and the Zionists with modern bombs and
planes. On the other side is a group of pious youth relying on God."
Hizbullah's resistance has succeeded, he says. Theirs is the glory.
The crowd roars.
"Kofi Annan [the UN secretary-general] talked to me on the phone," Mr
Ahmadinejad suddenly reveals, as if letting his listeners into a
secret. "He told us not to be angry about the UN resolution [that
ordered Iran to stop its nuclear activities]. But nuclear power is our
right. No one can take this way from us. The security council is a
puppet of the Global Arrogance (this is Mr Ahmadinejad's new term for
the US, formerly known as the Great Satan). The people will make a
"new Middle East", not the Americans ...
"The enemies of Iran are trying to divide the Iranian nation. But they
should know the people are wise to this trick. They will not fall for
it again. Our main task is to develop and build the Iranian nation. No
one will stop us." By now the crowd is beside itself. And Mr
Ahmadinejad has hardly raised his voice.
"We hate the UK," says Abdul Ali Majnoni, 39, after the speech. "The
UK and the US are imposing their ideology on other people. Tony Blair
is a Satan and his appearance is like a fox."
His companions titter at his strong language. Iranians are generally
extremely polite. Mr Majnoni smiles. "Don't take it personally," he says.
The rally speeches, repeated with local variations throughout Ardabil
province, serve several purposes. They bolster nationalist sentiment,
especially over nuclear power; and they emphasise Iran's leadership
role among Muslim and developing countries.
The provincial tours are a reminder to political rivals and reformists
that Mr Ahmadinejad, the blacksmith's son who came from nowhere, is a
formidable political force whose support is apparently growing. They
speak directly to the youth in a fast-growing nation where the
majority is under 30. And they also seem designed to prepare ordinary
people for sharpening confrontation with the west, including tougher
Not all Iranians are happy about Mr Ahmadinejad's leadership. He faces
considerable criticism among the secular-minded urban elite,
intellectuals and middle class professionals who abhor his social
conservatism. The president is also described by some as a front man
for sinister rightwing and fundamentalist forces that are dragging the
country backwards. In much of the US and western Europe, Mr
Ahmadinejad's outspoken and sometimes shocking anti-Israeli statements
have further isolated Iran**.
For Mr Ahmadinejad's provincial speechifying carries another, more
profound message, and it is repeated wherever he goes. It appears
aimed as much at George Bush and the western "crusaders" as his
Ardabil followers. And it tells of a future in which the justice of
the righteous, as discerned by the president, will triumph.
"God has the power. No human being has all the power. Power is a gift
from God," he tells his audience. They are hushed now, listening
intently. "Power has to be used to help people. This applies to the
leaders of countries as well as ordinary people. God rewards believers
and those who have patience. Those who believe should not be scared of
anything. For God is with you. The people of Lebanon are believers.
They were not scared. And they did succeed. God kept his promise to
the people of Lebanon. And he has given them victory."
And, in the Ahmadinejad roadshow, the victory of the Iranian faithful
is also only a matter of time.
*As opposed to the know-all Tisdall who is a world-authority on the
Ahmadinejad: We are Not a Threat to Any Country, Including Israel
Sunday, August 27, 2006
Believe it, don't believe it, that's up to you. But at least we
should know what exactly he said, which is not something our US
newspapers will tell us about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech on
Kayhan reports that [Pers.] Ahmadinejad said, "Iran is not a threat
to any country, and is not in any way a people of intimidation and
aggression." He described Iranians as people of peace and
civilization. He said that Iran does not even pose a threat to
Israel, and wants to deal with the problem there peacefully, through
"Weapons research is in no way part of Iran's program. Even with
regard to the Zionist regime, our path to a solution is elections."
Ahmadinejad seems to be explaining what his calls for the Zionist
regime to be effaced actually mean. He says he doesn't want violence
against Israel, despite its own acts of enmity against Middle Eastern
neighbors. I interpret his statement on Saturday to be an endorsement
of the one-state solution, in which a government would be elected
that all Palestinians and all Israelis would jointly vote for. The
result would be a government about half made up of Israeli ministers
and half of Palestinian ones. Whatever one wanted to call such an
arrangement, it wouldn't exactly be a "Zionist state," which would
thus have been dissolved.
The schlock Western pundits, journalists and politicians who keep
maintaining that Ahmadinejad threatened "to wipe Israel off the map"
when he never said those words will never, ever manage to choke out
the words Ahmadinejad spoke on Saturday, much less repeat them as a
tag line forever after.
Supreme Jurisprudent Khamenei's pledge of no first strike against any
country by Iran with any kind of weapon, and his condemnation of
nuclear bombs as un-Islamic and impossible for Iran to possess or
use, was completely ignored by the Western press and is never
referred to. Indeed, after all that talk of peace and no first strike
and no nukes, Khamenei at the very end said that if Iran were
attacked, it would defend itself. Karl Vicks of the Washington Post
at the time ignored all the rest of the speech and made the headline,
'Khamenei threatens reprisals against US." In other words, on Iran,
the US public is being spoonfed agitprop, not news.
Although Iran's protestations of peaceful intentions are greeted
cynically in the US and Israel, in fact Iran has not launched a war
of aggression in over a century. The US and Israel have launched
several during that period of time.
Ahmadinejad made the remarks in a speech inaugurating work on a heavy
water nuclear reactor in Arak. I don't think that work is very
advanced. The Iranians maintain that it is for peaceful energy
Much of the electricity produced in France, South Korea and Japan is
generated by nuclear plants.
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