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Originally published Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Ahmadinejad faces growing criticism in Iran for economic woes

Prices for vegetables have tripled in the past month, housing prices have doubled since last summer — and as costs have gone up, so...

The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Prices for vegetables have tripled in the past month, housing prices have doubled since last summer — and as costs have gone up, so has Iranians' discontent with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his focus on confrontation with the West.

Ahmadinejad was elected last year on a populist agenda promising to bring oil revenues to every family, eradicate poverty and tackle unemployment. He now is facing increasingly fierce criticism for his failure to meet those promises.

He is being challenged not only by reformers but by the conservatives who paved the way for his stunning victory in 2005 presidential elections. Even conservatives say Ahmadinejad has focused too much on fiery, anti-U.S. speeches and not enough on the economy.

"The government has painted idealistic goals like tackling housing problems and unemployment ... but no solution has been offered," said Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a prominent conservative lawmaker.

Ahmadinejad's government "has been strong on populist slogans but weak on achievement," said Khoshchehreh, who campaigned for Ahmadinejad during the election.

The president has touted himself as a tough anti-Western leader, frequently denouncing the United States. His comments that Israel should be "wiped off the map" and his questioning of the Nazi Holocaust have angered the West and increased Iran's isolation.

At the same time, he has aggressively pushed ahead Iran's nuclear program, shrugging off U.N. demands that the country halt uranium enrichment. As a result, the U.N. in December imposed sanctions on Iran.

Internal issues facing Iran


Discontent with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among Iranians is centered around:

• Skyrocketing food and commodities prices since the U.N. imposed sanctions last month to discourage the country's uranium enrichment program;

• Housing prices that have doubled since last summer;

• Unemployment ranging from 10 percent (according to the government) to 30 percent (according to some economists);

• Inflation that the government says is 11 percent, but is estimated at 30 percent by some economists.

Source: The Associated Press

The sanctions were limited to a ban on selling materials and technology that could be used in Iran's nuclear and missile programs and the freezing of assets of 10 Iranian companies and individuals.

But since then the price of fruit, vegetables and other widely used commodities in Iran — already rising — have skyrocketed, apparently because of fears of harsher punishment.

The inflation has hit hard, along with unemployment, which the government puts at 10 percent but which economists say could be as high as 30 percent. The government also says inflation is 11 percent, but experts estimate it at 30 percent.

Tehran housewife Maryam Hatamkhani, 28, said her family has given up buying potatoes and tomatoes because prices have tripled or quadrupled in the past month. Tomatoes have gone from around 33 cents a pound to $1.50.

"Instead of bringing welfare, this government has given us hardship," she said.

Vahid Yousefi, a factory worker and father of two, moonlights as a cab driver at night to get by. He had hoped to buy a modest apartment in downtown Tehran last year but couldn't afford it. Home prices have doubled in the six months since.

"I really can't make ends meet," Yousefi said.

Lawmakers summoned Ahmadinejad's Housing Minister Mohammad Saeedikia to parliament for questioning over the rising prices, which he blamed on increasing demand. He promised a plan to control prices but gave no specifics.

Demand for housing has swelled because of a population bulge in Iran. After the 1979 Islamic revolution, hard-line clerics encouraged Iranians to have more children, causing a high birth rate in the 1980s and prompting them to reverse the policy in the 1990s.

Ahmadinejad — who has revived much of the revolution's rhetoric — raised a public outcry last year when he said two children per family was not enough and urged Iranians to have more. Despite the criticism, he has stuck by the calls, saying last week that Iran, a nation of 70 million, has the capacity to feed 300 million.

The president "keeps making empty promises to people in every city he goes. This is causing unhappiness," said Ghaffar Esmaili, a conservative lawmaker.

In a sign of the growing discontent, the president's allies suffered a humiliating defeat in December local elections, carried by reformists and anti-Ahmadinejad conservatives.

Since then, Ahmadinejad's critics have become bolder, accusing him of unnecessarily escalating the nuclear standoff with his harsh rhetoric.

Reformist and conservative lawmakers are considering calling Ahmadinejad before parliament to answer questions about his nuclear diplomacy and economic policies. So far, no date has been set for summoning him.

Some 150 lawmakers signed a letter last week calling on Ahmadinejad's government to reconsider its draft budget for next year. Lawmakers called the draft too dependent on oil revenues. Iran roughly makes about 80 percent of its revenues from oil exports.

Even the president's globe-trotting has come under fire. He has made several trips to Asia and Africa, burnishing his reputation as a world leader who can stand up to the United States. This week, he was in Latin America, meeting presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua and other anti-U.S. figures.

"Do you really assume people like Chávez [and] Ortega ... can be Iran's strategic allies?" the reformist daily Etemad-e-Melli said in an editorial Tuesday addressing Ahmadinejad. "We should not build a house on water."

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