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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
Ronaldinho signs the t-shirt of a pitch invader
footballProof they are getting bolder
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
indybestKeep extra warm this year with our 10 best bedspreads
voicesBy the man who has
people... and stop them from attacking people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Associate Recrutiment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Group have been well ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?