ARADAN, Iran (Reuters) - Don’t come to the sleepy market town where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born and expect to hear him criticized for his handling of the nuclear issue, the economy, or anything else really.
Just ahead of Friday’s parliamentary election, voters in Aradan admit they are troubled by inflation, rising housing costs and unemployment, but few blame the president.
“We are very happy with the government, especially Ahmadinejad,” said greengrocer Ali Kashani, as he waited for customers in an almost deserted street. “He has done great things for us, like standing up to America, standing against our enemies so that no foreigners interfere with Iran.
“We have no problems, and if we do, they are not created by the government,” said the 38-year-old father of two.
Son of a blacksmith, Ahmadinejad, 51, has few strong roots left in Aradan, a modest town of about 5,000 people that serves farmers who grow grain, cotton, grapes, olives and pomegranates.
Ahmadinejad’s family moved to Tehran, 110 km (70 miles) to the west, when he was a boy. He studied civil engineering in the capital. After joining the Revolutionary Guards in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, he lectured at a university and served as a provincial governor before becoming mayor of Tehran in 2003.
In Aradan, Ahmadinejad is viewed as a local hero who is keeping his 2005 election promise to put Iran’s oil wealth on the tables of the people. They like his piety and his personal style of touring the provinces, handing out cash or loans.
“Here, and everywhere he has been, Ahmadinejad has allocated a budget. Then he comes back to check if it has been spent properly,” said Haj Jalil Mirzai, behind the counter of his plastic flower shop in Aradan’s tiny covered bazaar.
“It’s a very good government. They work for the people and take care of the needy,” the white-haired 77-year-old added.
Ahmadinejad’s critics, who include fellow conservatives as well as reformists, say his policies have fuelled inflation, now running at 19 percent according to government figures.
People in Aradan will have none of it.
“Sure, inflation has gone up, but it’s a global problem,” said Ali Reza Cheloyan, who farms wheat and cotton with the help of myriad state subsidies. “We support the government.”
In Aradan’s main street, people can sit on painted benches beneath pine trees on a grassy dividing strip and watch workers put up a monument — a globe supported on curved white pillars.
Iran, somewhat isolated from the global economy, has to generate its own jobs, but accountancy student Jaafar Kazemi, 21, spoke gloomily of his employment chances when he graduates.
“Nobody can find a job in this country. There are too many young people and they are all looking for work,” he said.
But asked what message he would give the president if he had the chance, Kazemi responded: “I want to tell him that we love him very much. He is seeking justice.”
Such sentiments testify to Ahmadinejad’s appeal in the provinces, where his populist policies and commitment to the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution go down well with many.
He can rely on men like Haj Aziz Kazeman, a grandfatherly tailor aged 68 who wore a black woolen cap and tweed trousers.
“I’m a basiji (volunteer) and I command 100 men at a basij base,” he said, sewing buttons on a shirtsleeve in the bazaar.
“I fought in the war against Iraq and I have two sons in the Revolutionary Guards. I will give my last drop of blood for the revolution,” Kazeman added.
“Every Muslim has a duty to do what’s required,” the greybeard said when asked if he would vote on Friday.
On the walls of his shop hung portraits of the father of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who this month publicly praised Ahmadinejad’s performance as president.
There was also a framed photo of a young man in uniform, Kazeman’s nephew, killed in the war with Iraq.
An estimated 13 million of Iran’s 70 million people belong to the basij, a militia dedicated to defending the revolution. Their mass votes are thought to have played a vital part in Ahmadinejad’s surprise victory in the 2005 presidential poll.
While Aradan’s townspeople spoke of their contentment, a real estate agent confided that all was not well in his sector.
“House prices have more than doubled in the past year,” said Ali Mousavian. “And rents now take two-thirds of people’s income. “Before it was less than a third. Construction materials have become very expensive, especially steel, and so has land.”
Mousavian said land prices were rising partly because people were buying land using state loans extended for other purposes.
Did this mean Ahmadinejad’s largesse with Iran’s windfall oil revenue was having some unwelcome consequences?
The question was too much for the president’s loyalists among a small crowd listening to the interview on the street. “Say positive things,” one of them admonished Mousavian.
Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Samia Nakhoul