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Iran's people await their share of riches

Many find that the oil boom has failed to trickle down, despite Ahmadinejad's vows.

August 28, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

ghaemshahr, iran -- Hussein Alinejad earns just $217 a month selling fragrant kebabs of chicken and lamb in a steamy shop here, and he knew Iran's leader couldn't help but be moved by his plight.

So when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to town in December, Alinejad wrote him a letter explaining his circumstances. He had three children, and a nice piece of land, but no money to build a house. Could he perhaps have a bank loan?

Twenty days later, he got a call from the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, a charity linked to the government: "Come and get the answer to your letter." When he arrived, someone handed him an envelope with more than a week's salary inside, his to keep. And his loan application was under review.

But it's been eight months since the president came through, and Alinejad still hasn't heard anything about his loan. A friend got one, but couldn't afford to buy more than a small garden plot with the money.

Across this city and other areas of relatively prosperous Mazandaran province in northern Iran, one of many rural regions where Ahmadinejad has enjoyed enthusiastic support since his election in 2005, there are growing worries that the trickle-down oil revenue the president promised has trickled only so far. As the Islamic Republic increasingly struggles with deep-rooted economic problems, some here are starting to mutter about broken promises.

Ahmadinejad's domestic popularity has its roots, in part, in his frequent and well-received jaunts to the provinces, armed with promises of low-interest bank loans and "justice" shares in Iranian companies and plenty of reassuring speeches about Iran's enduring invincibility.

"Justice means that all talents should be developed. All sections of the country should taste development and enjoy its assets," he said as he arrived here in Mazandaran, a farm-studded greenbelt of 2.6 million people. "Where there is tyranny, poverty and humiliation, it indicates that some have forgotten God, the messages of prophets and people's love."

Even with his loan in limbo, Alinejad is a big fan of the president, whose government has drawn criticism among urbane residents of the capital, Tehran, for mismanaging the economy, cracking down on dissent and getting in fights with the West.

"He is perfect in the way he talks to the people," he said recently. "He tours the country; he has contact with the real people. I admire that a lot. This city has been ignored by every single president, until him."

But many others here are tired of giving Ahmadinejad the benefit of the doubt.

"People understand that this country has been through a lot, including eight years of war. There were many martyrs, lots of suffering, all that is true. But now we are in the middle of an oil boom. So what is the share of the people?" said Abbas Tabakkal Shahmirzadi, who writes on the economy and social issues for the local newspaper.

"I didn't bother to go see him, and I don't think he's all that popular, personally," Faramaz Moghimi, a 56-year-old high school physics teacher, said of the president's visit. "He's not convincing people that, OK, I'm serious about rebuilding this town."

Across the country, the government is doling out oil cash as it grapples with more fundamental economic problems stemming from Iran's international isolation, large numbers of unemployed graduates and steep inflation fueled in part by the government handouts.

Teachers launched protests over low wages in March and April, resulting in hundreds of arrests.

Factory workers have staged similar protests in recent months over unpaid wages, some going back months.

In June, 57 economists issued an open letter warning that "government mismanagement is inflicting a huge cost on the economy," with the current high oil prices only "delaying the imminent economic crisis."

"What you need to understand is that every 1% increase in inflation means that 100,000 Iranian people go under the poverty line," said Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based business consultant. "And the most pressure of inflation is not over people in Tehran, it is over the poor people in the provinces. And they are much, much more under pressure than they were two or three years ago."

In his free-spending trips to the provinces, Leylaz said, "Mr. Ahmadinejad is trying to exchange the oil income of petrodollars into loyalty, in one sentence. But day by day, this is working less and less."

Ghaemshahr, a city of half a million people about 100 miles northeast of Tehran, was once one of Iran's most successful industrial towns. Its five textile mills once employed more than 6,000 people in decent-paying jobs, turning out fabrics, uniforms and industrial storage bags that were sold all over Iran.

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