The tree-planting ceremony in Tehran's Dialogue Park feels more like an early stop on Iran's presidential campaign trail than a bid by a humble local mayor to turn Iran's largest city green.
Some break through the photographers ringing Mayor Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf and give voice to one of the biggest questions in Iran's political future: the ambitions of this former national police chief and moderate conservative for top office.
"Can I have an autograph?" asks one Gulf Arab diplomat after planting his nation's tree in the park. Mr. Qalibaf laughs, and, in mock surprise, asks why.
"Tomorrow you will be president!" enthuses the diplomat, evoking a smile from the square-jawed mayor with receding hair and designer sunglasses.
The Tehran mayor's post has long been a launchpad for national political aspirations in Iran. Arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ah madinejad used the office to turn a nondescript political career in the provinces into victory in June 2005, beating a mix of other right-wing candidates, including Qalibaf.
Analysts say that Qalibaf has learned the lessons from that failed bid, in which he ran a slick, Western-style campaign that played on his credentials as a commercial Airbus pilot. It won him less than 14 percent of the first-round vote (Mr. Ahmadinejad won 19 percent) and did not show, they say, enough reverence for the needs of the conservative common man.
Presenting himself today as Iran's new "man of action," Qalibaf is striving to impress at home, with a host of initiatives to improve life for 10-15 million residents in chaotic Tehran and a workday that often begins with meetings before dawn, while showing himself to be comfortable on the global stage.
"He could be the key of the next political fight. He comes from an older generation of [Revolutionary Guards], and could help bring them back into the mainstream," says Mohammad Hadi Semati, a political scientist at the University of Tehran. "Given the reckless record of Ahmadinejad in the Iranian political context, he may be a new bright star."
Thursday, the mayor wrapped up a three-day visit to Switzerland, which is portrayed as a summit between the mayors of Zurich and Tehran to discuss municipal problems like traffic control. But the event has been burnished to appear like a state visit with top-level meetings.
"Everything Qalibaf does, he's got his eye on the presidency," says one friend and adviser to the mayor. When a military plane crashed into a Tehran apartment block in December 2005, for example, Qalibaf set off on a motorcycle, beating the traffic and arriving at the scene before most emergency workers.
"He was effective," says one young Iranian who worked in the Ministry of Interior at the time. "He has a reputation as an action man, as being able to move from concept to action. Among my friends, people love Qalibaf above others."
The mayor received a crucial political boost in December, when his moderate conservative allies won municipal elections in Tehran and in cities across Iran, defeating candidates loyal to his rival, Ahmadinejad, whose own four-year tenure expires in 2009.
Careful political calibration
But finding the right balance is tricky so many months before the presidential vote. The mayor's office has yet to grant an interview with foreign media and recently cancelled a much-anticipated press conference.
"Qalibaf has to walk on very cautiously, to do some publicity, but not too much," says a Western diplomat. "He's not an ideological man; he's a technocrat."
But Qalibaf is also not afraid to reach far beyond Tehran. When he describes environmental issues, he talks in global terms. And in a lecture last month, he spoke of Iran's need for a "dynamic diplomacy" to accommodate "new situations" abroad.
The mayor accused the US of "hegemonic" policies in the Middle East. Signaling that he might pursue a less aggressive foreign policy for Iran, Qalibaf said, "A lot of time has passed" since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and that "competition along with collaboration will take the place of opposition and disagreement."
Iranians laud Qalibaf for a string of thoughtful innovations while noting that he has little of the personal speaking charisma that surrounds characters such as Ahmadinejad. As national police chief, Qalibaf created an emergency telephone number for police (110), decked out the force in new uniforms, and instilled a new professionalism.
Sidewalks, emergency phone lines
During his tenure as mayor, which started in August 2005, his presence has been felt with projects as diverse as new sidewalks for Tehran's long central Vali Asr Street and the installation of street corner dumpsters, something that has led to a marked reduction in rats and stray cats. He's also worked on city earthquake preparedness in conjunction with the Swiss government.
Qalibaf created another number for municipal emergencies (137) and is credited with speeding up some road and other building projects. He has created a "Voice of the City" radio station and the Tehran municipality website, which, beside doing a countdown of the days until large projects are due to be finished, is conducting an online poll, asking Tehranis questions that range from traffic issues to billboards and public transport.
Under Qalibaf's rule, Iranians have seen a boost in green spaces, with officials boasting at the tree-planting ceremony that 2007 would mark the achievement of 3.5 million plantings for Tehran. The city is buying up empty lots and gardens and has so far created 106 new neighborhood parks – adding to a total of a 1,600-percent increase in park space since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Not all Iranians are impressed
But not all Iranians are bowled over. "This project makes the street more beautiful; before it was so old, and now it is new," says Iman Darvish, an engineering student who works in a clothes shop on Vali Asr Street, pointing to the unfinished work outside.
But Qalibaf is "just advertising," says Mr. Darvish. "He's just thinking about himself [and] only of having more power."
Will Qalibaf make a good president? "No, because he is an Army man, and his thoughts are militarily oriented," says a woman in the shop who asked not to be named, referring to Qalibaf's past as an officer in the Revolutionary Guard. "We need a man who knows what Iranians need. We need liberty – the word itself."
Since losing the presidential race, Qalibaf, who holds a PhD in political geography and still teaches, has been trying to tap into those demands by examining what has appealed to Iranians in politicians like reform-minded former President Mohammaed Khatami and regime stalwart Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In the next presidential race, Qalibaf may not be pigeonholed as a conservative candidate, relative to hard-liners in the field.
"People are impressed with Qalibaf; politically, he is moving more into the Khatami and Rafsanjani camp and portraying himself as a centrist," says Professor Semati.
Qalibaf's politics remain unclear, though past signs point to a growing pragmatism. Qalibaf was one of 24 signatories of a letter, sent to Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei in 1999, calling for a harsh crackdown on widespread student demonstrations.
But when student demonstrations erupted again in 2003, under his watch as police chief, "they dealt with that completely differently," says a Western envoy. "It was well-managed."
Also well-tuned is Qalibaf's embrace of a Swiss model – first tested in earthquake-prone Istanbul – to create teams of trained neighborhood emergency volunteers to provide the initial help and then to work with professional first-responders.
"Tehran is really something special – it is so huge, it needs greater capacity for preparedness," says Fabrizio Poretti, head of the Swiss Disaster Relief Reduction program in Iran.
The mayor's office plans to train between 50 and 100 volunteers in each of 370 districts of Tehran. Under Swiss guidance, a three-month pilot training program is to begin next month. Recognizing that 80 percent of survivors in earthquakes – according to Swiss figures regarding the 1999 Turkish earthquake – are rescued by locals who dig people out, each district has a shipping container full of uniforms and emergency supplies, such as generators and small jackhammers.
Qalibaf's office has ordered 100 of the containers and is signing up volunteers.
"I am surprised they have moved so quickly," says Mr. Poretti, noting that the program started from scratch in Tehran last summer. "They are very fast, very good, and very motivated. In the past year, they have been very willing to work."