Technocrat who fell foul of politics

The mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, sentenced to jail for graft yesterday, almost single-handedly lifted the Iranian…

The mayor of Tehran, Gholamhossein Karbaschi, sentenced to jail for graft yesterday, almost single-handedly lifted the Iranian capital out of its post-revolutionary doldrums. A no-nonsense technocrat, he brought to life decades-old plans for landscaped freeways and built housing and supermarkets for the masses.

He brought art and concerts to teeming south Tehran districts - all paid for through a "tax" on development and other informal sources of revenue that some residents dubbed "the Karbaschi system".

He has often been accused by his critics of using the municipality as a private political machine and enriching himself, his business associates and political cronies by looting city coffers.

His road from veteran city manager with impeccable Islamic revolutionary credentials to convicted criminal runs through the very heart of Iran's political struggle between conservatives and moderates. Karbaschi (45) provided key financial and organisational support to the moderate President, Mr Mohammad Khatami, who was elected in a surprise landslide last year on a platform of greater social and political pluralism.


The mayor's arrest by the conservative-led judiciary in April sparked an open row with the Khatami government and sent angry protesters into the streets of Tehran in his defence. He was released after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei interceded at the President's request.

Karbaschi's supporters rejected the charges of corruption and mismanagement as politically motivated and a conservative witchhunt against the President's top allies. The judiciary said it was duty-bound to root out corruption wherever it led. Karbaschi repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Born to a religious family in the Shia Muslim holy city of Qom, Karbaschi combined a secular education with traditional religious learning in local seminaries before heading to Tehran University in 1972 to study mathematics.

He immediately took up with the growing anti-government student movement then sweeping the university. He gave speeches, wrote anti-government pamphlets, distributed forbidden taped lectures of the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and took part in student protests.

Karbaschi was soon arrested by the Shah's security forces and in 1973 was sentenced to three years in prison. By the time Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran in triumph in February 1979, Karbaschi was recognised as an exemplary young leader.

He worked in the Ayatollah's office for six months before taking over as ideological head of the new Islamic republic's television. In 1982 Ayatollah Khomeini personally selected him to serve as governor of the central province of Isfahan.

A successful stint there led to his promotion to mayor of Tehran in 1989.

Along the way he angered traditional bazaar merchants for his taxation policies. More ominously, he fell foul of the conservative establishment for his aggressive backing of Mr Khatami.