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Deadly train crash in Iran prompts resignation, arrests

The backlash over one of the deadliest train crashes in the history of Iran brings down the head of the country’s railways and leads to the arrests of multiple officials.
Iranian minister of transportation Abbas Ahmad Akhoundi speaks during the CAPA 2016 Iran Aviation Summit in the capital Tehran, on January 24, 2016.
Iran says it will buy 114 Airbus planes to revitalise its ageing fleet, in the first major commercial deal announced since the lifting of sanctions under its nuclear agreement. News of the Airbus deal came as aviation representatives from 85 companies met in Tehran to assess ways to do business in the Islamic republic after sanctions were removed.  / AFP / STR

As the number of casualties from the train collision in northeast Iran on Nov. 25 climbed to 49 dead and 103 injured, 20 lawmakers have moved to sign a motion to impeach the minister of roads and urban development.

Four carriages derailed and two caught fire in the crash, which took place 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Tehran, in the province of Semnan. The accident happened when a passenger train hit another that had stopped near Haft-khan station.

President Hassan Rouhani immediately ordered an investigation into the cause of the crash. Moreover, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a Nov. 26 message asked Iranian officials to find the root cause of the incident and prevent any repetition of such an occurrence.

Rail transport in Iran has been the safest mode of transportation compared with air and land transport. However, the country has faced difficulties in modernizing its aged rail network due to economic sanctions imposed over its disputed nuclear program. In recent years, Iran has increased its investment in rail transport, and Rouhani's government boosted allocations for the development of the rail sector by 12.8% for the fiscal year ending March 20, 2017.

The latest train crash again brought to the surface an ongoing quarrel among political factions. On Nov. 27, Sadegh Zibakalam, a political activist and a professor at Tehran University, raised the question, “Why do Iranian officials not resign when deadly incidents take place?” Writing for Arman daily, he compared the reactions of officials in Iran to fatal crashes with those of their counterparts abroad. “Officials in developed [governing] systems are accountable for their actions. Lack of accountability is the problem we face in Iran,” wrote Zibakalam.

However, in reaction to this accident, the head of Iranian Railways, Mohsen Pourseyed Aghaei, actually did resign. On Nov. 27, Aghaei tendered his resignation, saying, “The obvious fact in the collision of the two trains is that a failure had occurred that involves the railway management, and for this reason I submitted my resignation to minister of roads and urban development, which he accepted.”

Meanwhile, judicial authorities in Iran arrested three railway employees as part of an investigation into the collision. Semnan’s Prosecutor-General Heydar Asiabi said Nov. 26 that the head of the railway’s command and control center for northeast Iran, the head of the track control center and the individual in charge of the shift at the center when the collision occurred have been arrested.

In addition, Iranian lawmakers on Nov. 26 started collecting signatures for an impeachment motion against Minister of Roads and Urban Development Abbas Akhoundi over the train accident. The motion is to be presented to parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on Dec.4.

The Conservative Kayhan daily accused Akhoundi of incompetence and wasting resources. “The officials of the Ministry of Roads and Urban Development, and specifically the minister, have again stuck to the old excuse of ‘human error’ as the main cause of the accident to downplay their own incompetence,” the daily reported Nov. 26.

On Nov. 27, in another sign of the broader intensification of political infighting in recent months, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a Reformist member of parliament, was briefly arrested at his home by judicial authorities due to questions he had raised about the personal bank accounts of the head of the Iranian judiciary. On Nov. 14, Sadeghi called on judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani to publicly divulge his personal bank account statements “to put an end to rumors about alleged corruption” within the judiciary.

Larijani denied the accusations and criticized the president and the parliament speaker — his brother — for not taking measures against the “accusations by the MP [member of parliament].”

In other news, another high-profile accident occurred in Iran on Nov. 27. A helicopter belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) crashed into the Caspian Sea, killing all five people onboard. The chopper was sent to the region to rescue a Khazar Exploration and Production Company employee who was suffering from a heart condition.

According to IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif, the crash took place shortly after a Mil Mi-17 helicopter was dispatched to an oil rig located 20 kilometers (12 miles) off the port city of Amirabad in the northern province of Mazandaran.

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