Tehran's powerful mayor banned from travelling to US

Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, a rival to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of 2005, has been barred by the Iranian foreign ministry from attending a Washington awards ceremony.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, talks with a colleague as the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Qalibaf, left, looks on.
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TEHRAN // Iran's foreign ministry has barred Tehran's mayor, Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf, from attending a US non-governmental organisation's awards ceremony in Washington, a move critics say might be an attempt to prevent a rival to the Iranian president from basking in the spotlight.

Along with the mayors of Guangzhou, China; Lima, Peru; Nantes, France; and Leon, Mexico, Mr Qalibaf was picked by the Washington-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to receive one of its 2011 sustainable transportation awards. He was chosen for overseeing Tehran's Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and subway system.

Mr Qalibaf is a former Revolutionary Guards air force commander and was chief of the Tehran police during reformist Mohammad Khatami's presidency. He ran unsuccessfully against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in presidential elections of 2005 and was later elected mayor of Tehran by its city council.

Five BRT lines extending more than 100 kilometres transport 1.8 million passengers a day while the city's subway system, with its 75 stations and 125km of rail, caters to the needs of two million.

Much of the construction and development has taken place during the nearly six years of Mr Qalibaf's tenure as mayor of the capital.

Alireza Dabir, a member of Tehran's City Council, was scheduled to participate in the awards ceremony yesterday evening on behalf of Mr Qalibaf, city officials said on Sunday.

Speaking to reporters after news agencies revealed the foreign ministry's ban on Saturday, Mr Qalibaf chose to downplay the incident.

"Whether I attend the ceremony or not after being invited and the reason [my participation] was opposed doesn't affect the original matter [of being nominated for the award]. I am not for making it a personal issue and [only] want the city of Tehran to achieve more honours," Mr Qalibaf told reporters at the inauguration Sunday of a new new metro line.

However, Tehran Emrouz, a newspaper that tends to support the mayor, strongly criticized the foreign ministry's decision and accused it of "sacrificing national interests at the foot of factional inclinations and political grudges".

Mr Qalibaf has been in a particularly bitter fight in the past year with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the metro's development budget, which is supposed to be supplied by the municipality and the national government in equal amounts.

Some analysts believe the hardline faction led by Mr Ahmadinejad is concerned about the prospects of Mr Qalibaf putting up a tough challenge to their candidate, possibly chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashie, in the 2013 presidential elections. The Washington visit could have bolstered the mayor's popularity and provided favorable publicity for him, they say.

Ali Afshari, an Iranian political activist living in the US told Radio Farda: "They want to block Qalibaf and prevent his nomination and success."

Despite parliament legislation authorising it do so nearly a year ago, the Ahmadinejad administration has so far refused to spend an extra US$1 billion on municipal transportation in Tehran from the country's oil reserve fund. The legislation is to expire in two months.

Last week, the minister of economic affairs and finance, Shamseddin Hosseini, claimed the fund had dried up and there was no money to give to the municipality, but many legislators said this was an excuse.

A conservative politician, Ali Mottahar, hinted last week at the possibility of grilling the president in the parliament about his administration's refusal to pay the money.

Mr Qalibaf said on Sunday that if the money is paid, Tehran's metro could increase to 4.5 million passengers a day from about 2 million now, with the construction of new rail lines, additional cars and more stations.