Image: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Raheb Homavandi  /  Reuters file
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seen in this Dec. 11, 2007, file photo.
updated 1/22/2008 5:01:45 PM ET 2008-01-22T22:01:45

President Bush isn't the only leader facing serious economic woes. Icy weather is causing big political trouble for Iran's hard-line president, who is under attack for mismanaging the economy as the country runs perilously low on gas for heat.

More than 60 people have died in the cold, some because of gas shortages in remote and mountainous villages, and even Iran's supreme leader has implicitly rebuked his one-time protege.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was openly humiliated when state radio read a decree by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Sunday ordering him to implement a law approved by Parliament to supply more natural gas to remote villages.

Citing budgetary reasons, Ahmadinejad had balked at the Parliament's order to spend $1 billion from the country's currency reserve fund to supply the gas.

But Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters under Iran's complicated system, overruled him. That was particularly noteworthy because, although Khamenei has cooled publicly toward the president in recent months, he rarely enters into any outright dispute.

"This was an unprecedented real hit to Ahmadinejad's government," said Tehran political analyst Saeed Laylaz.

Ahmadinejad's political party
As with Bush, the economic troubles and growing discontent come ahead of crucial elections that could affect the future of Ahmadinejad's political party.

The Iranian leader has struggled politically for months, as one-time supporters joined critics in saying he should focus on Iran's economy rather than on confrontations with the West. On Tuesday, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany agreed on a new draft resolution to tighten sanctions against Iran over the country's refusal to suspend its nuclear program, officials said.

Ironically, Iran has the world's second-largest natural gas fields after Russia. The country produces more than 15.75 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day, all consumed domestically.

The exact cause of the current shortage was unclear, but demand clearly spiked because of the cold weather. Many critics say production could easily have been doubled long before this, if managed correctly by the government.

"The crisis of the gas shortage was a direct result of (the government's) policy," Laylaz said.

Fears of bread shortages
Many view high inflation and shortages of gas and bread as particularly bitter because Iran should be flush with oil revenues right now, from high world oil prices. More than 80 percent of the government's revenues come from oil, and Ahmadinejad had campaigned on a platform to help the poor.

"This was our fault. We elected a man who cannot manage problems," said Haydar Mirghasemi, who waited for an hour and a half outside a Tehran bakery this week to receive six pieces of bread — the staple of Iranian tables.

Long lines have formed at city bakeries because of fears of bread shortages, which have hit other towns and cities after heating gas was cut.

"During the past week, I came to the bakery four times, returning empty-handed" each time, said another angry customer, Ali Moradi, a construction worker.

Mockingly he added: "How good the government has treated the lower class."

Iran does not release all its budget information but generally has said revenues are up because of oil. Critics say Ahmadinejad has flooded the market with paper money causing inflation, relied too much on imported goods, including basic commodities, and used oil money for daily government expenses instead of investing it for the long term.

The president countered attacks, saying in December that his predecessors were to blame for the inflation.

A government spokesman, Gholam Hossein Elham, defended Ahmadinejad's administration Monday. "The (gas) law had an inflationary effect; it was naturally right of the president to warn about it," he said.

The crisis comes less than three months ahead of crucial parliamentary elections slated for March 14.

Hard-line conservatives gained control of the parliament in 2004 after the country's constitutional watchdog barred thousands of reformists from running in elections.

But in local municipal elections a year ago, the president's allies suffered a humiliating defeat after a majority of the seats were won by reformists and conservatives opposing Ahmadinejad.

The gas shortage has created wide ripples. The government closed offices, schools and universities for days because of possible shortages.

"What does it mean to send a country on a holiday after a snowfall?" Kamal Daneshyar, a longtime parliamentary supporter of Ahmadinejad asked in the weekly Shahrvand journal. He called criticism of the government's crisis management valid.

Cold-related deaths
An energy expert, Ali Shams Ardakani, told the weekly that "planning has departed from the Iranian economy. If heating gas is cut on the coldest day of the year, it means lack of management."

Local media have reported 64 cold-related deaths and said gas cuts were to blame for some, although others died after being trapped on icy mountain roads. As much as 22 inches of snow fell in areas of northern and central Iran in early January, the most in more than a decade.

"Clients in my constituency have faced gas cuts and closed bakeries for 10 days," said one legislator, Mehrangiz Morrvvati, who represents a mountainous northeastern town.

Dissatisfaction is inevitable, said analyst Hamid Reza Shokouhi with the independent Mardomsalari daily. Gas cuts have "increased a pessimistic view of Ahmadinejad's administration" among a public already faced with price increases for gasoline and consumer goods in recent months.

Because the government has now allocated more natural gas capacity to households for heating, it will no longer provide natural gas to taxis, state radio said Monday. Many taxis and other cars in Iran can operate on either gasoline or natural gas.

"I pay double now for the same distance. Taxi drivers are asking for more money" because of the gas shortage, complained secretary Manijeh Rahimi. Her nose turned red from the cold as she waited for a taxi on a downtown street corner.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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