Iran Election Guide

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Iran Snapshot: The Politics of Smog

Iran is in the middle of another imposed 48-hour "holiday" because of air pollution. No word so far on whether the break, which follows last week's 24-hour stoppage and subsequent four-day religious holiday, has had a significant effect.

Robin Pomeroy of Reuters posts a useful overview of the smog problem, fed by old automobiles with lack of emissions controls and more than three million automobiles on roads designed for a maximum of 700,000. The chief of Tehran's traffic police says, "3.8 million cars in Tehran pollute the environment the same amount as 48 million standard cars would do." 

Then the article becomes significant, as it opens up the politics behind the latest crisis: part of the smoke comes from the escalating battle between the Parliament and President Ahmadinejad.

Earlier this year, the Majlis approved a $2 billion expansion of the Tehran subway system, with extension of the existing services and completion of two new lines , taking the Metro from the centre of Tehran to Imam Khomeini International Airport 25 miles away. 

But the Ahmadinejad Government has refused to allow the allocation. The reason? It is another front in the contest for control between Parliament and the President, but the financing would also hand more power to another rival of Ahmadinejad, Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf.

And now another straw to stir the conflict: if the Ahmadinejad Government ever cuts gasoline subsidies, prices will rise dramatically. (The Minister of Economy was quoted yesterday giving the figure of a 600% surge; his Ministry issued a denial hours later.) Sharply higher costs for fuel means more people looking to leave the cars at home and taking public transport.

That would add to the strain on an underground which carries two million people each day. The manager of the Metro, Mohsen Hashemi says, "The implementation of the subsidy reform plan will spark off social unrest and rioting in metro stations if the administration does not meet its commitments in releasing money for increasing passenger capacity."

In lieu of accepting the decision of Parliament and Qalibaf and allowing the $2 billion allocation, President Ahmadinejad has put forward his own solution: move up to five million of Tehran's people from the capital.

That only leaves the problem: how do they get out when the roads are gridlocked and they can't see through the smog?

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