Tehran's tree-loving mayor has a taste for democracy

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The Independent Online
In the Chitgar park, out on the forested hills 12 miles west of Tehran, girls in scarves and young men in T-shirts and jeans can be seen cycling together down specially constructed roads. The trees were planted to relieve Tehran's pollution, the cycle tracks to give the city's teenagers a place to meet outside the suffocating rules of the Ansar Hizbollah's morality patrols.

But the park's creator - Gholam Hussein Karbaschi, the mayor of Tehran - is not without his enemies. Just next to the Chitgar coffee shop, a notice has been erected on the unisex cycle path. "Women are forbidden to ride bicycles on the path," it says. "Violators will be prosecuted."

It's not the first time that the 42-year-old mayor of Tehran has tweaked puritanical noses. When he turned a former south Tehran slaughterhouse into a cultural centre with American-style auditoriums, he staged a jazz- concert for the city's youth. To avoid religious objections, he called it "Music of the Oppressed"; girls and boys entered through separate doors - but then sat together inside. Dynamic might be a tired adjective but it fits Gholam Hussein Karbaschi. Within a few years, he could be President of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The son of a cleric and himself a student of theology from the holy city of Qom, the mayor of Tehran has singlehandedly transformed his filthy and overcrowded city into a place of public gardens, freshly cleaned streets and painted kerbstones. He has opened a chain of modern if pricey Refah ("Welfare") supermarkets around the capital complete with US-style shopping malls - and on one occasion even hung cages of live birds around Vanak square.

Karbaschi quotes the Prophet's exhortation for cleanliness in all things - if humans must be clean, why not cities? His men have planted flower beds around trees and expressway intersections. Utility workers have been sent out to paint store fronts; shopkeepers later complained that Karbaschi sent them the bill. He is a man who makes enemies and has - so they say in Tehran - ambitions. If the "Servants of Reconstruction" had won more seats in this month's parliamentary elections, he might have been president next year. In five years, he could still make it to the presidency.

Talking to Karbaschi is a tonic after the official rhetoric of the Islamic Republic. While condemning the US government for its "injustice" towards Iran, he admires the American work ethic, accepts that Tehran itself was built on US lines (under the Shah, of course) and adds: "They [Americans] have a new and modern civilisation which is something to be admired."

Like all serious politicians, Karbaschi publishes a newspaper, Hamshari (The Citizen), a well-produced daily with colour photos, chatty columns and a 300,000 circulation that stays clear of politics. But he remains an Islamist. If teenagers can listen to jazz together, men and women have been strictly separated on the mayor's city buses. "Most ladies asked to be separated," he says.

Karbaschi spent three and a half years in prison under the Shah. "They jailed me just for speaking my mind," he says. "I studied Mao's book. I was interrogated, they searched our house and asked us questions because we listened to the Imam's [Khomeini's] speeches . . . The greatest achievement of our revolution is our independence." Karbaschi admits that his most pressing problem is the mass of poor from the Iranian countryside who still flock to Tehran for homes and work, swelling the city to more than 7 million, erecting houses without electricity or main drainage.

The rule of the majority means democracy, he claims. People want rules and "the majority is always right - all over the world". This may be a little naive but the mayor of Tehran appears to believe it. And one day the rest of the world may have to pay attention.

Robert Fisk