How well are hard-liners running Tehran?
Once touted as a model for what Iran's conservatives can do, the city council loses its luster of efficiency.
TEHRAN, IRAN — The city engineer leans over the map of Tehran, pointing to a segment of freeway to the northeast - the strip of concrete where he says he experienced an unlikely political epiphany.
Two years ago, Iranian hard-liners had just taken control of the city council, promising to turn Tehran into a "model Islamic city." With revolutionary zeal the council quickly overcame bureaucratic hurdles and finished the Sayyad Shirazi freeway project, which had been stalled for years.
The hard-liners' ambition: An example of efficiency in Tehran that would spread political support for radical factions across Iran, ensuring victory over reformers in parliament and even in presidential elections slated for June.
But the impressive start did not last, and the Tehran case study for fundamentalist rule, say analysts, has instead turned into a political liability.
"My colleagues and I were so happy because our job was having a direct impact on improving people's lives," says the engineer, who asked not to be named. "I became hopeful, and thought: 'Here comes a group that I do not like, but has the connections, the will, and the ability to get something done.'"
And get things done, it did. The council began to turn cultural centers and art galleries into mosques, and canceled "un-Islamic" programs. Prostitutes were chased off the streets. The municipality gave interest-free loans to newlyweds.
Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is pushing plans for a monorail to help ease traffic congestion. Gone are the days of council infighting that marked previous administrations of the moderate, reformist camp. Though entered in the World Mayor 2005 internet contest, ideological nepotism appears to have stalled many infrastructure projects.
"Immediately after [hard-liners] came, there was progress, suddenly there were no dead-ends," the engineer recalls. "But this new group overemphasized ideological credentials in projects. When there is a push to finish a project for a big revolutionary anniversary, it gets done," he adds, folding the Tehran map. "Otherwise, there are problems."
The result, say critics and supporters, is more traffic and pollution in a city of some eight million people. "The city council is a model of working without tension, but people expect more than no tension - the council needs brilliant works, a brilliant plan," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative newspaper, Resalat. He adds that more important than revolutionary ideals "are good education, good money to solve problems, and good programs."
Dismissed by critics as fundamentalists incapable of running a modern city, the council was elected in a February 2003 vote that saw only a 12 percent turnout. Iran's reformist majority, disillusioned with the failure of their champion President Mohamad Khatami, did not turn out to vote.
Conservatives say that the next step in regaining popular control of government came in February 2004, when conservatives - after more than 2,500 reform-minded candidates were barred from running - won parliamentary elections. They hope to complete the triple crown by winning the presidential election coming up in June.
But that trajectory has not been trouble free. Already hard-line efforts by parliament to separate men and women on university campuses, and impose an even stricter dress code, have been rebuffed by the public.
"There is a faction in Iran - call them the Taliban - whose cultural view is closed, who do not believe in freedom of expression or participation," says Mostafa Tajzadeh, a Khatami adviser. "If they thought this [city council] was doing well, their first presidential candidate would be [mayor] Ahmadinejad, but he is fourth."
Mr. Tajzadeh notes that the hard- liners promised to repair all the streets in 45 days, "but never in Tehran's history has it been this bad." He adds, "Our society and our people do not believe they can solve the big issues of the country."
In a city where Iran's armed and security forces control one-sixth of the turf, good relations are key. The military was at odds with the reformist administration of Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, the popular mayor in office eight years. He nevertheless beautified the city, multiplying green spaces 15-fold, and raised city revenue by a factor of 30. But Karbaschi was convicted in 1998 on corruption charges leveled by hard-liners - in a case largely seen as a surrogate trial of the reformist policies of Khatami.
"There is no evidence of success for fundamentalists in the city council," says Ayatollah Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident religious scholar. "Every day in my car, I hit potholes in the street, and say: 'What a bad mayor we have.' "
THE mayor "has had some good operations," but they have not been successful enough to be applied on a bigger scale, says Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst. "Not even conservatives think [this model] should be extended to the whole country."
Indeed, some argue that the Tehran example of hard-line leadership may be hastening that faction's demise.
"Even when the radicals take power, they must use the same slogans as Karbaschi: reconstruction, reform of institutions, and value to cultural issues," says Mohammad Atrianfar, a city counselor in the Karbaschi era, and editor of the reform-leaning Shargh newspaper.
"It has reached a point where they realize their survival depends on their distance from their beliefs," says Mr. Atrianfar. "In Iran, extremists on both the left and right are getting close to their death, [This is a] last gasp."