Tehran mayor a pawn in Iranian power struggle

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IRANIAN leaders grappled yesterday in a scarcely hidden power struggle between reformers and hardliners after the arrest of the popular Mayor of Tehran. The reformist President Mohammad Khatami has not concealed his anger at the arrest of Gholamhossein Karbaschi on corruption charges. He played a key role in the election campaign of Mr Khatami last year.

The Interior Minister, Abdollah Nouri, yesterday attacked the judiciary, questioning the competence of judges to press embezzlement charges against the mayor. The government spokesman said the Cabinet would give "priority to the affair and will make a pronouncement". Mr Karbaschi is being held in the main Evin prison, where he was questioned for six hours on Monday, and has not been allowed visitors. In a statement issued in Saudi Arabia, where he is on the annual haj, Mr Nouri said: "I cannot conceal my concern over the process of judicial investigation of the municipality file ... damaging the prestige of a person like Mr Karbaschi has consequences and those who do it should pay for it."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the hardline Chief Justice, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, expressing fears that "the decision to arrest and prosecute Mr Karbaschi may be a politically motivated act". The Servants of Construction, a political group representing moderates, including Mr Karbaschi, called the move "purely political".

The prosecutor's office says the mayor told council officials to misappropriate public funds. Mr Karbaschi was arrested as he went to give evidence to a long-running investigation into embezzlement by city officials.

In his eight years in the post, Mr Karbaschi, 44, has been credited with transforming Tehran by building low-cost housing and financing parks. On Monday, President Khatami met Iran's hardline supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to try to resolve the dispute. Yesterday the Hamshahri newspaper, which supports the mayor, quoted residents as demanding that people show their support for Mr Karbaschi by gathering in public. Mr Karbaschi has a spotless revolutionary background. He was a member of the entourage of Iran's Islamic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, was jailed under the Shah, and was a director of state television after the Islamic revolution. Like other reformists, he argues that the Islamic republic can only last if there are concessions and political dialogue. On a previous occasion when a number of his colleagues were arrested, he described this as "the revenge of the election losers".