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'Moderate' conservatives will win Iran elections: mayor

TEHRAN: Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf -- a rival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's -- told AFP in an interview he sees "moderate" conservatives winning March legislative elections for Iran's next parliament.

Candidates who "maintain rationality and moderation in their discourse will win," he predicted.

"If I can express it clearly, the next Majlis (parliament) will be without the excesses and wastage" of the outgoing one, he said in the interview conducted early this week in his mayoral offices.

The former Revolutionary Guards airforce commander and the nation's police chief ran for president in 2005 but lost in the run-off to Ahmadinejad, who was himself mayor of Tehran before being elevated to lead the Islamic republic.

Qalibaf was appointed to the mayor's office that year, and by many accounts has done well by Tehran, streamlining services, expanding parks and having transport infrastructure built to mitigate a major problem plaguing the city: chaotic, dense, polluting traffic.

He also enjoys something of a flamboyant reputation as a pilot, maintaining his flying skills by at least once a month taking the commands of a passenger Airbus.

Although he skipped the 2009 elections that returned Ahmadinejad to power -- amid opposition protests and allegations of fraud -- Qalibaf is, in the eyes of many Iranians, a likely contender for next year's presidential election, when Ahmadinejad has to step down after serving the maximum two consecutive terms.

Characteristically, Qalibaf, 50, veered clear of explicitly expressing ambitions for that post in the AFP interview, though he waded into topics that showed he was thinking politics at a national level as well as a local one.

He also highlighted a contentious relationship with Ahmadinejad's government, which he said owes Tehran $2 billion in property taxes for government buildings in the capital and other contributions.

"The government owes us $1 billion for the metro expansion scheme" and "another $1 billion for the current budget for this year," he said.

"I can tell you that a big chunk of it has not been paid," he said.

The parliamentary elections on March 2 will be a key indicator in the fortunes of potential presidential candidates.

The vote is seen as a tussle between two conservative camps, the supporters and opponents of Ahmadinejad.

Would-be candidates have submitted their names and Iran's Guardian Council is vetting them to decide who will be on the lists. Few reformists are expected to make it on them.

Qalibaf said he wanted to see more unity emerge in the next parliament with "moderate principalist" MPs -- those critical of Ahmadinejad -- dominating.

"I do not want to see a Majlis which is a place for factional debates but a Majlis which can guide the nation to progress and development," he said.

The mayor touched on other subjects that spanned local and national political spheres: the recent, sudden weakening of Iran's currency; and security for foreign embassies in the wake of the November 2011 storming of the British mission by pro-government demonstrators.

While many Tehranis are complaining that the plunge in the Iranian rial is making the price of food and goods, already soaring because of high inflation, even more expensive, Qalibaf said it was "not an issue of the general public."

Mainly traders and businesses were being affected, he said, adding that the impact was largely "psychological," and linked to the anticipation of Western sanctions that had not fully come into effect.

As for embassy security, he maintained that it was "very good" in Tehran, and that foreign diplomats and their families were going about the city, and to its nearby ski fields, without problem.

He asserted that the storming and ransacking of the British embassy, and of a separate British diplomatic compound in the city known as Qolhak Gardens, on November 29, 2011 was a one-off incident in which protesters acted "without approval by the country's officials."

Britain, which closed the embassy and ordered Iran's embassy in London shut following the violence, has claimed, to the contrary, that such a rampage in Tehran could have only occurred with official connivance.

Qalibaf said a long-running separate legal dispute over ownership of the Qolhak Gardens was ongoing, with Iranian officials claiming the wooded property should belong to the city, not to Britain.

But he said that no action would be taken on the property until an Iranian judge ruled on the matter.

"We have lodged our complaint and we will wait for the court's decision," he said.

 
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