x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

On sale for charity: Iranian president's Peugeot

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to part with trusty 504, a far cry from the luxury cars of the Shah, but proceeds from the international auction of this 1977 model will go to low-income housing.

It is a battered, 1977 white Peugeot 504 that many people might be embarrassed to drive.

But it is expected to fetch a handsome price at international auction as a collector's item because it belongs to none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's controversial president.

In keeping with his carefully cultivated "Robin Hood" image, Mr Ahmadinejad is selling his beloved old jalopy to raise money for a charity that provides affordable housing for low-income families.

Cynics might see it as a typically clever publicity stunt. Mr Ahmadinejad came to power in a surprise landslide victory in 2005 by promising to give Iran's poor a fair share of the country's huge oil wealth.

Before that, as Tehran's mayor, he insisted on driving his Peugeot - which has no air-conditioning - instead of using a gleaming, city-provided limo.

This was in stark contrast to some ayatollahs and senior government officials who are chauffeured around in top-of-the-range Mercedes and BMWs, many of them armour-plated.

Or to the car-mad Shah who had a fabulous collection of vintage and classic vehicles. These included a 1953 bulletproof Rolls-Royce Phantom IV, a rare Mercedes 500K coupe rumoured to have transported Nazi leader Adolph Hitler to review his troops shortly before World War II, and some notable, US-made behemoths.

But Mr Ahmadinejad, the son of a rural blacksmith, has always portrayed himself as the people's president. As Tehran mayor, he joined cleaners sweeping the sprawling capital's streets - usually with television cameras in tow.

One of his first well-publicised moves as president was to transfer all the priceless Persian carpets in the presidential palace to a carpet museum, replacing them with cheap rugs. Hawk-eyed observers, however, have spotted in recent television interviews that some expensive carpets have again surfaced in his office.

Aides claim that Mr Ahmadinejad's wife gives him sandwiches to take to work, where he is said to put in 18-hour days.

But jittery Iranian security men have finally cajoled him into parting with his trusty Peugeot.

"Now he's chauffeur-driven around in a bulletproof Mercedes," said Meir Javedanfar, co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran, a biography of the Iranian leader.

Iranian state television said that money raised by the Peugeot's sale would be given to the Mehr housing project, a network of co-operatives that provides affordable housing for low-income families.

Following his fiercely disputed re-election last year, Mr Ahmadinejad vowed to put "housing, employment and economic reform" at the top of his agenda after house prices soared during his first, four-year term in office.

The starting price for the Peugeot will be announced soon, Iran's welfare and social security minister, Sadeq Mahsouli, said earlier this week. But he gave no indication of how foreign buyers could bid.

And there was still no sign of it on eBay last night. How much the Peugeot raises at auction will depend on how big a talking point the bidder believes it will be - or whether he is simply a rich admirer of the Iranian president who wants an intimate souvenir.

Obviously, the 33-year-old Peugeot has none of the intrinsic rarity value of the cars in the Shah's extraordinary collection.

An anonymous private collector in 2004 offered US$4 million (Dh14.7m) for the deposed monarch's Mercedes 500K coupe, the only one left in the world out of six made. The would-be buyer was told that, because the notoriously profligate Shah had bought his cars with the public's oil money, they belonged to the people and would go on public display.

Another favourite of the Shah's was an olive-green Ferrari 512BB boxer which the late King Hussein of Jordan - also an avid car collector - gave him as a present.

Most of the Shah's cars were requisitioned by the Iranian government after the 1979 Islamic revolution. Some deemed too decadent for official use were sold to an unidentified businessman in Dubai in 1991.

Several of these surfaced at an auction in Geneva in 1997. Among them was a metallic burgundy Lamborghini Miuri SVJ that was especially built for the Shah in 1971. It was said to be his favourite car but had just 1,897 miles on the clock. Nicolas Cage, the Oscar-winning Hollywood star, snapped it up with a telephone bid from the US for $446,000.

Some 100 cars that belonged to the Shah, who ruled Iran from 1941 until he was overthrown in 1979, are now in the National Auto Museum, a warehouse on the outskirts of Tehran. They are being restored and maintained by volunteers at their own expense.

For the Iranian authorities the exhibition is clearly meant to serve as a reminder to gawking visitors of the Shah's self-indulgence.

In such stellar company, it is hard to imagine that Mr Ahmadinejad's humble Peugeot would be much of a crowd-puller in the museum.

But in Beverly Hills, who knows, it might enjoy a certain cachet.