A top official in Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office has stepped in to defend the controversial “Mehr” (affection) housing project in full force.
The November 11 earthquake that hit western Iran, devastated state built apartment buildings leading to attacks against former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who initiated the project.
Critics, among them President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, have maintained that the residential units built on free plots granted by the state were so fragile that most of them easily collapsed in the earthquake, killing hundreds.
However, the Supreme Leader’s top aide, who usually keeps away from the spotlights, Vahid Haqqanian has dismissed the criticism and branded it as “panic mongering”.
Based on audio and video clips widely circulated in social media, Haqqanian, an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’, IRGC commander and reportedly the “right hand” of the Supreme Leader, has lambasted Rouhani and his first deputy for “unfair” comments on “affordable” Mehr housing units mostly built during Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
“May God damn [Vice President] Jahangiri who initiated the politically motivated criticism of Mehr buildings”.
A day after the earthquake hit Kermanshah province, Rouhani’s first deputy, Ishaq Jahangiri bitterly declared that most of the buildings which collapsed in the earthquake belong to the Mehr housing project and most of the victims have been residents of these units.
“The project had no oversight, whatsoever”, Jahangiri said.
Furthermore, Rouhani also personally stepped in and attacked the state-built housing projects, describing them as a scheme deeply mired in corruption.
The dangerous 7.3 earthquake that hit the Iran-Iraq border region, was relatively close to the surface, but Iran suffered a heavier casualty rate, which many blamed on the collapse of many state built housing projects.
Nonetheless, Haqqanian has insisted that the “Mehr housing units are quite safe and comments on their fragility is merely panic mongering that could lead to fear among twelve million people living in the state built apartments”.
Meanwhile, deputy for construction affairs of Kermanshah Province, Mojtaba Nik Kerdar announced on Saturday, November 18, “[During the earthquake] two Mehr bulildings in city of Sarpol-e Zahab completely collapsed and 100 of the residents were killed”.
The head of Iran’s engineering supervisory board, Hassan Ghorbankhani also reiterated that his institution has never had any supervision over Mehr housing project.
The fact that state built units have collapsed but privately built ones are still standing reveals that corruption has been involved in building Mehr units, Rouhani had insisted, adding “It proves that governments are not good in building houses and people do much better in that sense”.
Mehr Housing project was an ambitious scheme initiated by then President Ahmadinejad in 2011.
“When I wrap-up my second term of presidency”, Ahmadinejad proudly declared in 2011, “The problem of housing in Iran will be rooted out”.
The promise was never fulfilled. Ahmadinejad wrapped-up his presidency with about two million Mehr units built all over Iran, leaving the rest of the project for his successor, Rouhani.
Nevertheless, Rouhani from the first days of his presidency did not shy away from saying that the Mehr project is an unbearable responsibility for the government.
On October 30, 2013, Rouhani’s minister of housing, Abbas Akhoundi announced “We discontinue Mehr Housing Project, but we will finish only the incomplete buildings”, adding that the government will come up with another social housing plan.
Rouhani and his close allies have always insisted that units built under the Mehr Project have no sewage and water purifying systems and they are built in locations devoid of necessary infrastructure.
But in a meeting with Rouhani and his cabinet members in 2014, ayatollah Khamenei explicitly ordered them to seriously carry on the project for “Millions of people are waiting for the completion of the project”.
In a reversal, Rouhani obediently declared that his government will not abandon the project.
Before Haqqanian’s comments in defense of the Mehr Housing Project, Ahmadinejad and his allies had also forcefully defended their record.
Ahmadinejad adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr reiterated, "Heavy waves of propaganda against Mehr are aimed at covering up the weakness and inefficiency of the (Rouhani) administration in helping quake-hit people."