Iranian President's Got Game. But Which Game?

In his soccer-playing youth, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was renowned for two valuable skills: speed, and his ability to fake out an opponent with fancy footwork. Of course, he mostly played indoor, or salon soccer, on a smaller-than-normal field.

Today, the fleet-footed footballer-turned-president of Iran is using the same tools in his war of wills with the United States. There are many within Iran, however, who suspect that “the monkey,” as the bearded president is known among detractors, is playing a game whose rules he does not understand, on a playing field too vast for his skill set.

“He can’t comprehend the situation he’s facing, and he can’t even understand the consequences he’s talked himself into,” said Ebrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister who now heads the Freedom Movement of Iran, a leading opposition group.

Speaking at his home, where songbirds lighten the mood outside, Yazdi, who served as foreign minister in the first days after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979, suggested that Ahmadinejad might not be able to serve out his full four-year term, which ends in 2009.

“He is not competent for the job he holds, and more people are saying it out loud,” said Yazdi, who remains under investigation by the government for his outspokenness and, until recently, his frequent trips to the United States.

Yazdi says he is no longer welcome in America, where his grown children live. Instead, he whiles away the days in his pleasant Tehran villa, fielding calls from fellow opponents of the conservative regime, and worrying about the outcome of Iran’s cat-and-mouse game with the U.S.

CountryWatch: Iran

While Ahmadinejad and President Bush circle warily around the issue of Iran’s insistence on enriching uranium, ordinary Iranians — like their American counterparts — are more worried about climbing prices and unemployment. Unofficially, inflation is on course to reach above 100 percent this year, and joblessness is estimated to be 20 percent.

With the price of oil at record highs, Iranians openly resent their economic plight. The United States under Jimmy Carter suffered from stagflation. Iran has mad-flation.

Particularly hard hit is the 70 percent of the population under the age of 30 — a generation that has known nothing but rule by the Islamic Revolution that swept the clergy into power in 1979. At a high-rise apartment complex just off Afriqa Boulevard, where kids from wealthy families congregate in designer jeans and the mandatory hijab, or headscarf, for women, the rituals are similar to the U.S. — not-so-subtle flirting, regularly interrupted by the squeal of cell phones and the tinkle of text messages — and almost no attention paid to the regime’s claim that nuclear technology is every Iranian’s birthright.

Equally striking are the looks of incredulity when asked if they want Iran to have a nuclear bomb. “We don’t need any more weapons,” they say almost unanimously. Instead, they are frightened by what they consider the bellicose anti-Iran tone from Washington.

Last March, Tehran was swept by rumors that an American rocket attack was imminent. In response, a brigade of willing would-be martyrs was formed to defend the homeland. In Iran, martyrdom is the new patriotism.

“If America would listen to what we are saying, instead of simply deciding that we are bad people, we could resolve this conflict,” says Rafat Bayat, one of 12 female members of Iran’s parliament. Bayat adds, not bashfully, that it would all be a lot easier if women were doing the negotiating.

Nearly all Iranians insist that the Americans have missed, or have chosen not to notice, Iran’s overtures over the last few years. After the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001, Iran’s leadership sent an official message of condolence. Last month, Ahmadinejad sent a rambling letter to Bush in which he discussed religion, politics and philosophy. The White House dismissed the letter as not substantive.

Ahmadinejad came to power last year bringing his own brand of reckless talk about Israel and Iran’s right to acquire nuclear technology. It is widely believed that in so doing, the president was ignoring the advice of his own government and even some of the ayatollahs who hold supreme power.

If so, Ahmadinejad was demonstrating the same crowd-pleasing theatrics that made him a popular mayor of Tehran until he became president. While educated, wealthier citizens of the sprawling capital dismiss him as a buffoon, the president has rallied support among the poor, disenfranchised millions in other parts of the country.

Ahmadinejad is fond of descending on a provincial town with little notice, assembling a crowd, and asking if their municipal services are working satisfactorily. When he hears the inevitable shouts of “No!” he has the local official in charge hauled before him for a tongue-lashing. It is a tactic borrowed from Reza Shah, the father of the monarch who was deposed by the revolution in 1978.

Since the poor and uneducated know they cannot influence the debate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they have chosen to see it in positive terms — as a signal that the country is emerging from 30 years of economic stagnation and international opprobrium.

Neither they, nor the rest of the world, can tell if Ahmadinejad is preparing to change course unexpectedly, as he once did on the soccer field, or if he is determined to drive Iran toward his nuclear goal.