The ski resort of Shemshak, just outside Tehran, is the last place you would expect to hear expressions of nationalist ardor. The slopes are filled with wealthy Iranians who sip hot chocolate in the shadow of a dazzling sun and spend most of their time gabbing about designer skiwear and which party to attend that evening. But when the subject of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes up between runs, the skiers get excited. "I couldn't be happier with him," says Mehdi, 19, an architecture major. "We just want our rights, and he defends them." His sister Anahita, 24, says she changed her mind about the President when he refused to abandon the country's nuclear-energy program. "He stood behind his world like a man," she says.
That an Islamic hard-liner has inspired such pride among even secular, Westernized Iranians says everything about the political climate in Iran today and shows how Ahmadinejad has transformed himself from a lightly regarded ideologue to a national hero. In recent months the President has used the escalating standoff over Iran's nuclear program as a platform for broadening his appeal at home, framing the West as an enemy bent on weakening Iran by denying it legitimate access to technology. Indeed, many observers believe that Ahmadinejad is reacting to the masses' increasingly assertive mood as much as he is stoking it. "Before, you had people vs. the regime," says a Western diplomat in Tehran. "Now you have Iran vs. the West."
Many Iranians attribute their changed views to the realities of a changed Middle East. The late 1990s--when former President Mohammed Khatami led Iran with promises of tolerance and democracy--was a stable time when young Iranians clamored for more social and political freedom. But now with neighboring Iraq in turmoil, Iranians seem more concerned with bolstering their place in the region than with freedom of expression. A growing sense of vulnerability is why many find it easy to ignore Ahmadinejad's fundamentalist outlook and provocative remarks and concentrate on his nationalist defiance. "I don't like this regime, but I don't think Iran should be weak either, or else we'll end up like Iraq," says Nazanin Arafin, 33, a teacher. "In the end, I'd rather be oppressed by an Iranian than a foreign occupier."
While he rallies supporters to back a more confrontational stance with the West, Ahmadinejad has soothed the anxieties of young Iranians, who initially feared he would crush their personal freedoms. Instead government meddling has been limited to blocking thousands of news and cultural websites. Some believe the regime will impose harsher social restrictions with time, but others argue Ahmadinejad will refrain altogether, to avoid alienating the majority of young people, among whom he is now popular. Young Iranians are excited to find a leader who lets them wear baggy jeans and pink veils, and still stands up to what they consider a belligerent U.S. "Our civilization is far superior," says Vahid Mobaraki, 28, a gold merchant in the Tehran bazaar. "We don't need to be bossed around by a country with only 200 years of history."