Tehran's Mayor, Who Turned City Green, Draws Wrath of Hard-Line Clerics
TEHRAN, IRAN — Look anywhere in the crowded capital of Iran, and you will see the hand of the mayor. Tehran glitters and is a city that works, and that is not just because an extra lick of paint was slapped on for the Islamic summit held here last week.
Tehran's rebirth has been part of a long-term redesign orchestrated by Mayor Gholam Hossein Karbaschi. In eight years, he has gained a reputation as a miracle worker among residents, who praise the way he has transformed this city of 12 million - once the second-most-polluted in the world, tied up in impossible snarls of traffic - with green areas.
Traffic lights work, road signs are accurate, and within minutes of a storm, municipal workers are on the streets sweeping up leaves. Around every corner, it seems, Iranians point to something and say with pride: "Our mayor did this."
So imagine the popular surprise when - soon after moderate cleric Mohamad Khatami was elected president in an upset victory over conservatives last May - hard-line members of parliament leveled charges of corruption against the mayor, threatening his position.
Mr. Karbaschi had strongly supported Mr. Khatami's bid for the presidency, so to most analysts, the charges stemmed from political motives rather than fiscal indiscretion.
"The people have had a good experience in Tehran, and their logic will overcome this propaganda," said Karbaschi in an interview in his office high above the city. Aerial photographs cover the walls, and two Mont Blanc fountain pens sit atop his broad desk.
"Those who lost their place and position in public opinion are very much worried," he says.
But the case is about much more than possible corruption at city hall. After all, corruption is a fact of life here, and Iranians even joke about the avaricious ways of some ruling clerics, saying that "The longer the beard, the deeper the pockets."
Karbaschi - whose gray-black beard happens to be trimmed very short - denies any wrongdoing. So far only court hearings have been held, though the mayor has offered to answer charges before parliament.
During his tenure, city revenue has increased 30-fold, and green space set aside in Tehran has grown by a factor of 15. Few deny his popularity - a point that he says makes him a worthwhile target for conservatives.
"The charges are an open challenge, because how could the mayor, after eight years, suddenly become corrupt?" asks an Asian diplomat. "It is not his trial - President Khatami is the one on trial."
"The injustice is not that he's squeaky clean," adds a senior Western diplomat, "but that he was singled out. Low-level corruption is part of the system."
But the mayor is confident that he will be cleared, and says that Khatami's emphasis on restoring legal certainty to an often chaotic, uncertain judicial system will ensure that such "political charges" are dealt with legally.
"The most valuable thing Khatami did was talk about law and order," Karbaschi says. "Those opposed to him always take illegal actions, so it is very good for him if everything is done according to the law."
Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ataollah Mohajerani has defended the mayor and said that he was being used as a scapegoat for hard-liners "because he turned Tehran into such a beautiful city." And new Minister of Interior Abdollah Nouri has warned that he will resign if the mayor is forced to stand trial.
Karbaschi says that neither he nor Khatami's government has anything to fear from hard-line opponents. Some 30 percent of Iranians didn't vote for Khatami, however, "so there will be some conflicts," he says.
"They are not strong at all, because their strength is related to the people," he says. "They appear strong and well-organized, but they are not.
"On the contrary, supporters of the president are day by day becoming stronger and more hopeful."