REPORTER: Bronwyn Adcock
Ever since Iran elected a new president nearly two years ago I've been applying for a visa to come here.
REPORTER: So do I need anything in particular to get this press pass, just my passport?
MAN: They just take a photo of you, that's all, and you have to fill out one or two forms.
On my last trip five years ago the nation's slogan was "dialogue among civilisations". Now, thanks to Iran's nuclear program, it's facing sanctions and the threat of war. The man leading the country on this apparent collision course is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While he was voted in on the promise of bringing wealth to the poor, it's the nuclear issue he's since embraced, taking on perceived Western hypocrisy.
PRESIDENT MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD, (Translation): They pile up their own arsenals of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, yet when it comes to the desire of other nations to develop nuclear energy for peaceful technological and scientific purposes, they start shouting slogans about global security.
Here in the city of Karaj, many Iranians have come to give their President letters containing their personal concerns. This is a hallmark of this self-styled man of the people. He's apparently received 5 million letters since he became President. But how closely is he reading their concerns?
REPORTER: One sign that President Ahmadinejad's popularity could be on the decline came in local council elections in December. Across the country, Ahmadinejad and his supporters suffered heavy defeats. Here in Tehran, they won only 2 out of 15 seats in the local council.
These losses in Tehran are particularly significant for a man who was once the mayor of this city. I've come to Friday prayers at Tehran University, a good place to gauge what the conservative, religious elements in Iran are thinking. I'm only allowed to film from the women's section and can't see today's speaker, but it's Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani - an influential cleric and former president. He's delivering a message to the West about Iran's nuclear program, a message that's almost a mantra in Iran nowadays.
AKBAR HASHEMI RAFSANJANI, (Translation): We're prepared to give you our complete assurance, that if we can sit at the negotiating table on terms of complete equality, then Iran will prove to you that it has no objective other than the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran seems prepared to risk everything to achieve their aim,
REPORTER: At what point, though, will you question is it worth a very high price to pay? Mottaki:
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI, IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: The only price which we are not going to pay, and definitely we will not pay, is to ignore for the right of our nation. We cannot accept this discrimination approach in the international relations.
REPORTER: But will it have such a tangible benefit for the Iranian people that it will be worth...?
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: We are going to spend tens of billions of dollars for production of 20,000 megawatts of electricity in our country through nuclear power plants. It is our national interest for our nation.
Back outside, after Friday prayers, ordinary Iranians are embracing this political message.
MAN 1 (Translation): We don't intend to use it for mass murder. We want to use it for medical advancement and nuclear advancement.
MAN 2: The nuclear issue is one of the science issues in Iran and all over the world. And all the people of the world, has the right, the equal right, for reaching to this point, and it is part of the scientific effort of the Iranian nation.
From an Iranian perspective, there's a deep sense of outrage that they're being denied what other countries have.
MAN 2: More than 70% of the energy of France comes from atomic power, and we have the right.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM, POLITICAL ANALYST TEHRAN UNIVERSITY: Many Iranians feel that, think that the West is against us. Not for the nuclear program per se, but the West is against Iran not to advance scientifically. This is something that many Iranians believe.
Until the Islamic revolution of 1979 that removed the American-backed Shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini in power, this compound was the United States Embassy in Tehran. These murals tell the Iranian history of American interference in their country. For many, the nuclear debate is seen in this context.
MAN 3 (Translation): Iran has always had a proud history. And you must also know it's always been the case that some have tried to impede our national progress. If you look at the Quajar or Pahlavi dynasties or even the early days of the revolution, countries like Russia, England or America have always tried to divide us.
REPORTER: Are you a supporter of President Ahmadinejad?
MAN 2: Me?
MAN 2: All these people are like Ahmadinejad, every of them is one Ahmadinejad.
REPORTER: What is it that you like about President Ahmadinejad?
MAN 2: Everything!
REPORTER: Can you give me some examples?
MAN 2: He is the most brave man in the history of the Muslim world.
MAN 4 (Translation): Ahmadinejad is equipped with the weapon of both faith and science. And he's now resurrecting the weapon of "Allah is great" that Imam Khomeini used to win the revolution. God is great.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: Because he has been acting as the champion of resisting US pressure. And, in a way, he has identified himself very much with Iran's nuclear program. So in a sense, if you go after him, you look a bit unpatriotic.
Despite having the power of patriotism on his side, people are speaking out against Ahmadinejad, an extraordinary thing in a country where free speech has both limits and consequences. I'm heading to the north of Tehran to see one of his critics. Dr Ebrahim Yazdi was Iran's first foreign minister after the revolution. He soon fell out with the leadership though and became a dissident voice who's faced arrest many times.
DR EBRAHIM YAZDI, IRAN FREEDOM MOVEMENT: You know, when I was not here five years ago and the security forces came and they took many of my pictures with Khomeini and now I don't have them. I have some in my office, but now I don't have it.
Ahmadinejad says that he wanted to refresh, or rearrange everything, in accordance with the first days of the revolution. This is impossible. The generation of the revolution is different than this generation. Therefore when he is talking everybody look around like he is talking nonsense.
While Dr Yazdi supports in principle Iran's right to nuclear technology, he thinks the issue is being manipulated by a populist president.
DR EBRAHIM YAZDI: Many governments, like Iranian Government, in the world, when they have failed to give the proper services that people expect, then they try to bring in a foreign threat, replace it with a foreign threat. I'm afraid that even today the Bush Administration play the same game. Exaggerating the foreign threat. The same thing in Iran.
Dr Yazdi accuses the President of exaggerating the nuclear issue to disguise the fact he's failed on his key election promise of reducing the gap between rich and poor. To find out more, I take a trip to Tehran's main bazaar, the economic heartbeat of the country. Despite it being the lead up to Iranian New Year, the owner of this decorations shop, Saeed, tells me business is slow.
SAEED: I think most of my customers are... do not they are not optimistic for the future, they feel worried about the future. Therefore, as you know, our items are decorations and when they do not feel secure they do not buy some decorations, they prefer to pay for something basic, for example food and something like this.
The story is the same in this cosmetics shop.
REPORTER: How bad has it been compared to other years?
MAN 4 (Translation): I can confidently say in previous years our sales exceeded 10 or 12 million toman. Now it's about 4 or 5 million. Maybe people want to hang on to their money in case there's a war or something.
REPORTER: How is business now?
MATTAVI: It's not good, it's not good.
Mattavi owns and runs a plastics business. He tells me he can only afford to pay his sole employee around US$140 a month. I soon discover what a sensitive issue the economy is.
REPORTER: What do you think is the reason for the economy being bad?
MATTAVI: You see, it's the politics problem of course, just that. Economic problem is just politic problem.
REPORTER: You were saying the problem is politics, what do you mean by that?
MAAAVI: I cannot be talking about that, it make problem for me, take it easy. Any of the persons in Iran cannot talk about politics so much. It make problem for them, take it easy, miss.
REPORTER: OK, no problem at all.
It's little wonder ordinary Iranians are scared of speaking out when you consider what's happened to those further up the food chain. Economist Saeed Laylaz says the President personally had him sacked from his government job for criticising his economic policies.
SAEED LAYLAZ, ECONOMIST: There are a lot of people, there are a lot of people who have to leave their jobs because of their warning and publishing their opinion about the economy or about the politics and so on.
REPORTER: Why do you think it is that the President is so sensitive about the economy?
SAEED LAYLAZ: This is because he failed in his economic policies, I believe. Frankly speaking, honestly, there is not one policy which has been successful by him since the past 16-17 months ago.
The biggest problem according to economists like Laylaz is the President's spending spree. On entering office he took billions of dollars from Iran's Oil Stabilisation Fund, a reserve of excess oil revenues. He spent up big on infrastructure projects, subsidies to the people, new government jobs, and salary increases. This dramatic expenditure led to a surge in inflation.
SAEED LAYLAZ: Everybody is worried, especially the Supreme Leader, personally is supervising the situation and because of this inflation rate which is increasing very fast.
Economists are warning that uncontrolled inflation could lead to disaster.
SAEED LAYLAZ: I believe the main reason is the huge gap between the social classes in the society. There are a lot of poor people who cannot save themselves in a potential wave of inflation. In this case there are a lot of people who cannot receive enough money even for continuing their life. And because of this there will be unrest and social turbulences in the country.
This dire prediction is being heard. Despite the warm welcome the President received in parliament last month, there is serious discontent here. In an unprecedented move, 150 members of the conservative dominated parliament, or Majiles, signed a letter criticising his economic policies. Significantly, the discontent is not coming just from his political opponents.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: They are actually coming from his own rank. A number of senior conservative figures, particularly in the Majiles, have actually been highly critical of Ahmadinejad's mainly economic policies.
Ahmadinejad has also come under fire for some of his other contentious forays into foreign policy, such as publicly questioning the truth of the Holocaust, and calling for Israel to be wiped off the map. Dr Afarideh is a reformist member of parliament and keen advocate of Iran's nuclear program. However, he thinks the issue has been mishandled. The fact a member of parliament is prepared to speak out is an indication of the mood here.
HOSSEIN AFARIDEH, MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT: In my opinion the President brought some argument that was not necessary, he mixed some argument to the nuclear issue. For example, the time the Iranian case was discussed in the UN, he started to talk about the Holocaust. This bring big damage to Iranian benefit.
DR EBRAHIM YAZDI: What does it have to do with our national security? It has brought up more negative response, increased the pressure on Iran. It is not a wise policy to say and do things to solidify the front against Iran. You know, foreign policy basically, the mission is, or the function is, to reduce foreign tension.
One of the most damaging critiques came from a newspaper called 'Jomhuri Islami'. This is not just any newspaper. It's seen as close to the Supreme Leader and the semi-official voice of the hardline clerical establishment. In an open letter to the President it said: "We acknowledge your endeavours to campaign for Iran's rights to develop nuclear energy." However, it went on: "What is the need for such aggressive rhetoric when it can only provide a pretext for the bullies to exert further foreign pressure. The way you have been presenting the nuclear debate would lead the listener to form the view that you are exaggerating the significance of the issue in order to divert the public's attention from other failures of your government." This editorial led to speculation that Ahmadinejad may have lost the support of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. If so, it's a sure sign of political death in Iran.
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: We cannot say definitely or categorically that the Supreme Leader has withdrawn his support for Ahmadinejad. What we can say is the Supreme Leader is no longer willing to give him carte blanche, to give him absolute support, to give him point-blank support.
REPORTER: Would you agree that there is some domestic concern in Iran now about the conflict situation that is developing? There are some critics who are saying the President has been too defiant, too confrontational.
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: If you are talking there are different opinions, for daily life, economic, politics and the others, we have an alive society, a very active society, even politically, and that is quite normal and natural. The people are deciding here, and the nuclear issue is a consensus issue in the country.
While considerable unease about Ahmadinejad does exist in Iran, there is still comprehensive political support for the nuclear program. The Foreign Minister warns any outsiders not to place their hopes on any disunity within Iran.
MANOUCHEHR MOTTAKI: We do not have any problem among ourselves, inside the country. Those who are going to invest on this possibility, they will lose, they will not get benefits.
Nevertheless, there have been strong rumours that the numbers are being gathered in parliament to impeach the President.
REPORTER: Do you think that's a real possibility?
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: I don't think it's a real possibility for the time being. I think in a sense maybe the nuclear issue is a god-sent issue to help him, because obviously even a school child will tell you that it's very unwise to impeach him while Iran is under so much pressure from outside on this nuclear issue.
Ironically, it could be pressure from the West that saves Ahmadinejad's political skin. It could also gain him support from the people. It's early morning at Tehran's bazaar, and Hussein Hadad is opening up his shop. Hussein is a metalworker. I met him early on in my trip at Friday prayers. A politically conservative and religious man, Hussein begins his work day by reading the Koran. He didn't support Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections. In fact, he campaigned on behalf of his main rival. But that has now changed.
REPORTER: Even though you didn't vote for him in the last election, do you now call yourself a supporter of Ahmadinejad?
HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): Yes.
REPORTER: Why, what's changed?
HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): We don't trust global imperialism.
The threats from America have convinced Hussein to now support the President.
REPORTER: Does the majority of the bazaar still support President Ahmadinejad?
HUSSEIN HADAD (Translation): The victory of the revolution proves that everyone supports it and this is what we're seeing in Iraq now. American soldiers breaking into people's homes by force. Can we really trust the Americans?
PROFESSOR SADEGH ZIBAKALAM: Millions of Iranians, millions and millions of Iranians would rally behind the Islamic regime if it is attacked by the United States or any other foreign power. It is one thing for me to criticise Ahmadinejad, but if Ahmadinejad is attacked by the United States, I am the first person who will defend Ahmadinejad, who will rally behind Ahmadinejad, I have no other choice.
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