Underground Politics in Tehran

Government resentful of management at capital’s successful metro rail system.
December 8, 2010
Tehran’s underground system is frequently overcrowded but has helped reduce pollution and traffic levels. (Photo: Mohammad Reza Shekari, Mehr News Agency)
Tehran’s underground system is frequently overcrowded but has helped reduce pollution and traffic levels. (Photo: Mohammad Reza Shekari, Mehr News Agency)
Getting on is a mad rush. (Photo: Sajjad Safari, Mehr News Agency)
Getting on is a mad rush. (Photo: Sajjad Safari, Mehr News Agency)
Station staff are on hand to stuff the last passengers in. (Photo: Sajjad Safari, Mehr News Agency)
Station staff are on hand to stuff the last passengers in. (Photo: Sajjad Safari, Mehr News Agency)
Tehran underground stations are covered with a diverse range of art. (Photo: Mohammad Hassanzadeh, Fars News Agency)
Tehran underground stations are covered with a diverse range of art. (Photo: Mohammad Hassanzadeh, Fars News Agency)
Portraits of Iranian artists at a station near the City Theatre in Tehran. (Photo: Hossein Mousavi-faraz, Fars News Agency)
Portraits of Iranian artists at a station near the City Theatre in Tehran. (Photo: Hossein Mousavi-faraz, Fars News Agency)
As on other forms of public transport, underground carriages have separate compartments for men and women. (Photo: Hossein Fatemi, Fars News Agency)
As on other forms of public transport, underground carriages have separate compartments for men and women. (Photo: Hossein Fatemi, Fars News Agency)
The segregation rule is commonly ignored on the metro. (Photo: Javad Moghimi, Fars News Agency)
The segregation rule is commonly ignored on the metro. (Photo: Javad Moghimi, Fars News Agency)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends the opening of a new station. He is no fan of Tehran metro boss Mohsen Hashemi-Rafsanjani. (Photo: Alireza Baradaran, Fars News Agency)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends the opening of a new station. He is no fan of Tehran metro boss Mohsen Hashemi-Rafsanjani. (Photo: Alireza Baradaran, Fars News Agency)
The first metro train manufactured in Iran rather than imported. (Photo: Babak Borzooyeh, Mehr News Agency)
The first metro train manufactured in Iran rather than imported. (Photo: Babak Borzooyeh, Mehr News Agency)
Metro company chief Mohsen Hashemi-Rafsanjani has pushed for extensions to the existing network. (Photo: Hamid Harasi, Fars News Agency)
Metro company chief Mohsen Hashemi-Rafsanjani has pushed for extensions to the existing network. (Photo: Hamid Harasi, Fars News Agency)
Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf inspects a new tunnels under construction in the north of the capital. (Photo: Hamid Harasi, Fars News Agency)
Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf inspects a new tunnels under construction in the north of the capital. (Photo: Hamid Harasi, Fars News Agency)
Metro staff on strike over working conditions and job security in 2006. The pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are insurance against accusations of anti-government leanings. (Photo: Javad Moghimi)
Metro staff on strike over working conditions and job security in 2006. The pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are insurance against accusations of anti-government leanings. (Photo: Javad Moghimi)
Passengers nip under concrete barriers intended to regulate the flow of people around the Karaj metro station. (Photo: Omid Vahabzadeh, Mehr News Agency)
Passengers nip under concrete barriers intended to regulate the flow of people around the Karaj metro station. (Photo: Omid Vahabzadeh, Mehr News Agency)

Since its launch 12 years ago, Tehran’s underground rail network has proved a success, alleviating traffic congestion and pollution in this city of 13 million. The prestige attached to this feat of construction has resulted in a political power-struggle for control over it.

Conceived under the late Shah of Iran, the metro project was put on hold as the 1979 Islamic Revolution was followed by eight years of war with Iraq. It got back on track in the 1990s, when Mohsen Hashemi-Rafsanjani, eldest son of the then president, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, took charge of it.

The current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is so much at odds with Rafsanjani, who now heads two important institutions, the Expediency Council and the Assembly of Experts, that he objects to his son’s domination of the metro project.

The younger Rafsanjani, who gained a degree in mechanical engineering in Canada, remains chief executive of the Tehran Metro Company and continues to push for expansion, with plans for more lines and stations. At present, nearly 1.4 individual trips take place on the metro every day.

The Ahmadinejad government has retaliated with various kinds of obstructionism.

At one point it backed a “sky train” monorail project rather than improvements to the underground system, but it was foiled by the city council, Tehran mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, and the Iranian parliament or Majlis. When the government responded by withholding the funding levels needed to expand the network, the Majlis approved disbursement of two billion US dollars for the project. Ahmadinejad hit back, saying parliament’s decision was illegal and he would not adhere to it.

Despite the controversy, Ghalibaf has retained Mohsen Hashemi-Rafsanjani because he has been fairly successful as chief executive and also because unlike his brothers and sisters, he has stayed well clear of politics.

The authorities are planning to build similar underground stations in five other centres – Isfahan, Shiraz, Mashhad, Tabriz and Ahvaz.

The pictures here show the Tehran metro at its busiest, the frequently ignored segregation of carriages for men and women, and a few of the 500 works of art installed at stations.

Babak Kermani is the pseudonym of a Tehran-based journalist.

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