TEHRAN The head of Tehran's Metro, the urban railway at the centre of a power struggle between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and rival conservatives, has resigned, Iranian media reported on Saturday.
Mohsen Hashemi had been urging Ahmadinejad for months to release $1 billion of parliament-approved cash to expand the network, while the president himself has made no secret of his desire to bring the Metro, along with its public prestige and valuable construction contracts, under his direct control.
The resignation brings that possibility a step closer which would be a blow against two of Ahmadinejad's political rivals: Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf and former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohsen Hashemi's father.
Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guards commander who lost the 2005 presidential election to Ahmadinejad, is seen as a possible future presidential contender and losing control of the Metro would weaken his position in the eyes of the electorate.
The Metro carries more than 2 million people a day under Iran's gridlocked streets and has helped Qalibaf win a nomination for an international transport prize, although the government blocked him from attending the award ceremony in Washington in January.
For Rafsanjani, who also stood against the then-outsider Ahmadinejad in 2005, the resignation of his eldest son is a humiliating defeat for a family which has been at the centre of Iranian affairs ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In his resignation letter, Hashemi blamed Ahmadinejad's government for starving the network of cash and said financial sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme meant the Metro was unable to raise its own funds.
"The Metro's important plans for the expansion of lines have been subject to delay in the procurement of equipment stemming from government's non-cooperation," he said, according to the Mardomsalari daily.
"Probably some of the current problems and the lack of support are linked to the fact that I hold the post of Tehran Metro CEO. Therefore, I am resigning so that the passengers using the metro will not remain under pressure."
The prospect of a shake-up at the Metro, currently controlled by the city municipality, comes as Iranians are seeing prices of essentials like transport and food increase as the government phases out some $100 billion of annual subsidies.
In a declaration that appeared to have sparked Hashemi's resignation, a state transport official said on Friday that Metro fares would be halved to 1,500 rials (around $0.15) if the government took over.
"I hereby announce that the rail transport company serving as the government's representative is fully prepared to take over all the activities of the Metro ... and bring to an end five years of political propaganda by some individuals," the official IRNA news agency quoted Mohammad Rouyanian as saying.
Any government move to take control over the Metro could bring Ahmadinejad once again into conflict with parliament which was angered by his refusal to disburse the funds it had allocated to the network.
Infighting within the conservatives that rule the Islamic Republic became more apparent after the huge reformist opposition protests that followed Ahmadinejad's contested re-election were crushed at the end of 2009.
The "Green" movement has experienced something of a resurgence over the past month, inspired by uprisings in the Arab Middle East and the apparent incarceration of opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi.
(Additional reporting by Hashem Kalantari; Editing by Jon Hemming)