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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Leader Stirs Up Old Anger

TEHRAN, Iran -- Since he took office as Iran's president nearly six months ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the subject of many jokes sent via text messages on cell phones across Iran. He has been spoofed on television and radio, here and abroad, as a bumpkin and a bigot for declaring the Holocaust a "myth" and causing international outrage over Iran's nuclear program.

One joke has the president combing his hair in a mirror and saying, "OK, male lice to the left, female lice to the right," ridiculing him as a religious extremist who wants to separate the sexes in public places.

But that is just part of the picture.

Beyond the prosperous tree-lined hills of northern Tehran, Ahmadinejad appears to be solidifying his support. He has traveled around the country, doling out promises of economic aid in some of the poorest regions, sticking with the humble clothing and religion-infused language that attracted his voters in the first place.

"He is leading a simple life," said Zabiollah Baderlou, 18, as he worked in a bakery in the city. "Television showed us his house. It was very simple. He is making these efforts for the people and all he wants is Iran's dignity."

Most of all, despite the limited powers of Iran's presidency, Ahmadinejad, an ultraconservative former militia member, has used Western opposition to Iran's nuclear program to generate national unity and purpose.

"You get the feeling that Iran, under the present leadership, is looking for isolation and to go it alone," said a Western diplomat based in Tehran who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to be able to continue working here. "They want to show their way is the right way, and the former guys were wrong."

After years of reformers controlling the government, Ahmadinejad is doing exactly what he promised, resurrecting the priorities of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, chastising the West at every turn and striving to forge a distinctly anti-Western national identity while re-establishing Iran's revolutionary influence across the Muslim world.

At a conference in October titled "The World Without Zionism" he effectively called for wiping not just Israel off the map, but the United States, too.

"Many have tried to disperse disappointment in this struggle between the Islamic world and the infidels," he said. "They say it is not possible to have a world without the United States and Zionism. But you know that this is a possible goal and slogan."

While sprinkling like-minded people into positions of power across the country, Ahmadinejad and his allies have demonstrated that they are undeterred by the complaints of the establishment, whether liberal or conservative.

They have instead taken their appeal directly to the poor and middle-class masses who are generally disgusted with a system widely viewed as corrupt and uncaring.

For the time being, they also have the quiet support of the nation's ultimate ruler, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Even those members of parliament who charge that the president's foreign and domestic policies are sending the nation hurtling toward disaster find there is little to do but watch from the sidelines.

"Right now, Ahmadinejad is an individual representing a new body in the whole Iranian political system that had been marginalized and disorganized," said a source who has close ties to many people in the government and was afraid he would suffer retaliation if identified. "They are in the process of making their identity -- and making history."

Ahmadinejad's ascension came at a time when the region was in turmoil, with Iraq bogged down in a violent insurgency, Islamic groups like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt emerging as powerful political forces, and Iran itself determined to develop a nuclear program that it says is peaceful and the West charges is aimed at developing weapons. And that insulates him from criticism.

"If it wasn't for the foreign pressures, perhaps Ahmadinejad, and his ministers, would have been called to the Majlis many times to explain themselves," said Akbar Alami, a member of the foreign affairs committee of the Majlis, or parliament, and an outspoken critic of the president. "As the pressure has increased, the safety margins for him to operate have widened."

Moreover, Ahmadinejad is looking beyond Iran, seeking to fashion himself as a pan-Islamic leader, much the way Ayatollah Khomeini did. It is not clear whether he decided to push to make Iran a regional leader, or whether he is trying to carry out a decision made at a higher level. But that posture is part of Iran's defiant public statements.

"The nuclear challenge is a big deception in the West, where they know we do not want nuclear weapons," Muhammad Javad Larijani, brother of the nation's chief nuclear negotiator, said during a Friday prayer ceremony. "What they are really concerned about is an advanced Islam. They are concerned the Islamic expansion will be a success, following the same concern they had for communism."