Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Iran's transport minister accuses hardliners over airport closure "Iran's transport minister accuses hardliners over airport closure

TEHRAN : Iran's reformist transport minister has accused the Islamic republic's hardline Revolutionary Guards of shutting down the capital's new airport as part of a wider campaign against foreign investment.

In an interview with AFP, Ahmad Khorram suggested one of the other reasons the new showpiece international airport was dramatically stormed in May could have been because the ideological army had failed to win a lucrative operating contract.

"Iranian companies also took part in the tender process. Among them were companies run by the armed forces... and the Revolutionary Guards. But their prices were higher and they were not selected," Khorram said in the interview Saturday.

The Revolutionary Guards, one of the most powerful institutions in the Islamic republic, shut down the sprawling capital's new Imam Khomeini International Airport (IKIA) on May 8 after just one flight landed.

Reports said military vehicles blocked off the runway, warplanes were scrambled and an approaching commercial passenger jet was diverted with a warning of anti-aircraft fire.

The elite army argued the 200 million dollar contract signed with Tepe-Akfen-Vie (TAV) -- an Austrian-Turkish consortium -- endangered the Islamic republic's security because the operators were foreign and also had business dealings with Israel.

"When they talk about security, this is groundless. There are some 300 foreigners who work at Mehrabad airport. And if the presence of foreigners at an international airport is a danger to national security, then by definition all international airports should be closed," the minister asserted.

IKIA, situated in the middle of the desert about 45 kilometres (30 miles) south of the capital, was built at a cost of at least 350 million dollars.

It is designed to take the strain from Mehrabad airport -- situated in the city centre and doubling as a military base.

Embattled President Mohammad Khatami inaugurated the airport's Terminal 1 with much fanfare on February 1 -- the 25th anniversary of the return from exile of the founder of the Islamic republic, the late Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

But the move by the Revolutionary Guards was seen as a major blow to efforts by Iran's reformist government to attract foreign investors.

Khorram asserted the problem appeared to be a mix of money and hardline, isolationist politics.

"There is a mentality that is against foreign investment in our country," he said.

"But you cannot get economic growth without foreign investment. Now is not the time to close our doors to the outside world."

"We are not against the Revolutionary Guards winning contracts," he went on to say. "Some of their companies already have contracts with us, but first they have to win the tender."

Khorram said negotiations to reopen the airport -- a three-decade-old project -- were still ongoing and that he hoped for a solution in the "next 10 days or so".

He said it could reopen after "two to three weeks", but did not elaborate on how a solution to the stand-off could be found.

The minister, whose three-year term in office has coincided with the usual string of transport disasters, is also facing impeachment by the new conservative-controlled parliament.

Conservative deputies said Sunday they had gathered enough signatures to force an impeachment vote. Khorram is obliged to appear before them before September 9.

The parliament has taken issue with the IKIA deal, a runaway freight train explosion in February that left hundreds dead as well as the ongoing chaos and carnage on the Islamic republic's roads.

"There are a lot of accidents all over the world, and how many ministers resign because of them?" Khorram asserted, referring to the Neishabour freight train blast.

"But questioning the ministry and the minister is the right and duty of the parliament, and I treat this impeachment affair as an opportunity to elaborate on my performance," he asserted, blaming Iran's shoddy transport system and congested roads on his predecessors.

"I knew that when I took this portfolio it was a ministry of disasters. There has been 20 years of mismanagement," he explained, asserting that he had merely exposed a large number of failings.

Khorram may be impeached, but even that fate would be better than the one suffered by his predecessor -- who died in a plane crash."


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