How Iran's Populist Lost His Popularity

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The creekside cafes of Darband, at the foot of Tehran's Alborz Mountains, are designed for lounging with waterpipes and tea and holding leisurely conversations about politics. Six months ago, you'd hear President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name in discussions all around you almost as soon as you sat down on the cafe's Persian-carpeted floors. These days, the subject rarely comes up. "He's like all the rest of them," says Amin, 22, a motorcycle messenger, using a Farsi version of "them" that's shorthand for the corrupt clerical establishment. "What has he done to solve our problems?" Hashem, his companion, nods at the Iranian cigarettes lying beside him. "Even these are more expensive," he says. "He just repeats slogans and goes on trips."

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• How Iran's Populist Lost His Popularity
With prices rising and the economy stagnating, Iranians view their President as less a national hero than the latest in a long line of ineffectual bureaucrats

• Many Happy Returns, Twelfth Imam!
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• The Backlash Against Iran's Role in Lebanon
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Such disillusionment says everything about the political climate in Iran today. Though his defiance of the United Nations and screeds against Israel and the U.S. have earned him admiration elsewhere in the Islamic world, Ahmadinejad isn't nearly as popular at home. Even in the eyes of low-income Iranians, his most loyal supporters, the President now seems less a national hero than the latest in a long line of ineffectual bureaucrats. A year into his first term, prices continue to rise, the economy is stagnating and people no longer debate whether Ahmadenijad has any surprise remedies in store. My family's weekly lunches, which used to devolve into loud arguments between Ahmadinejad's supporters, who claimed him as Iran's savior, and critics, who called him a religious thug, now center around the hit television series Narges. "He showed up with so much energy and talk that we were shocked into giving him a chance," says Hooshang Ghanbari, 35, a chemist and one of those former supporters. "Now we know it was just a tactical show."

The shift in attitude reflects how the nuclear issue is no longer so important to Iranians. Earlier this year, the president extended his appeal to Iran's urban middle class by taking a tough stand on the country's right to nuclear power. That radical approach won over many Iranians, especially when the U.S. finally agreed to join Europe in negotiations with Iran. Even the most ardent secularist I know, a Westernized engineer, started quoting from Ahmadinejad's speeches, and ordered his staff to stop circulating jokes about the president on their mobile phones. But the hard-line approach has yet to produce any tangible concessions, which is damaging his credibility. Though the nuclear dispute remains on the West's front burner, Iranians have stopped paying attention. "The issue dragged out, and now no one cares anymore," says Mohsen Daryabandi, 42, a photographer.

With the public turning inward, Ahmadinejad is now vulnerable to criticism that he hasn't improved the economy. He campaigned on a platform of creating new jobs, lowering prices and fighting corruption, but his government seems unable to fix any of those things. Although Iran's exports have benefited from the high price of oil, the costs of housing and many basic commodities have risen noticeably since the president's election. Ahmadinejad has also unnerved young Iranians by reviving some social restrictions and imposing a more Islamic atmosphere on university campuses. In recent months, the government has shut down two publications, sporadically raided illegal satellite-TV dishes and promoted measures to enforce more conservative forms of Islamic dress. Maryam, 32, a physician's assistant, thinks things will get worse: "It's clear he's going to close newspapers and act like a radical."

Unless he changes track, Ahmadinejad could soon be left with a small core of supporters, composed mostly of the provincial poor and radicals who share his hard-line ideology. One of my cousins still keeps faith in the president, correcting me when I fail to call him Dr. Ahmadinejad, as supporters do. "Who else stood up for Hizballah when the Israelis attacked Lebanon?" my cousin asks. But most Iranians seem to be concerned more with everyday issues like the cost of groceries and the lack of good jobs. On a recent hike with a group of Iranians from around the country, I was surprised at just how much people blame their problems on Ahmadinejad. "The traffic is his fault, these bad roads are his fault," said Naghmeh AminZadeh, 23, a university student from the town of Qazvin. "Even the rain is his fault." This is a populist who has lost his touch.