“It is possible and we can,” said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the banners above Zahedan, vowing to breathe life into this under-developed arid city in southeastern Iran. Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan, Iran’s second largest yet one of its poorest provinces, lying on a major narcotics route that leads from neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan towards Europe.
In a bid to increase security through economic development, Ahmadinejad has allocated 50 trln rials (over $5 bln) to Sistan-Baluchestan for infrastructure projects in the two years since he came to power.
“This province has a lot of unexplored potential,” provincial governor Habibollah Dahmardeh said. “But it has many problems, most notably water shortages and drugs.
“Many of the developmental projects were decided in previous governments, but they lacked the money or the will, or priorities lay elsewhere. This government gives 10 years’ budget in a year.”
Ahmadinejad has staged public rallies in all 30 of Iran’s provinces since taking power, but giving Tehran journalists a rare glimpse of one of Iran’s least visited provinces on a press tour, the government is proud to show off the roads, cement factories and power plants it is building.
It has funded the expansion of universities, replacing tent schools in remote villages with classrooms, renovating the cemeteries of the dead from the Iraq war and giving housing loans to war veterans.
The engineering arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have won a 2.6 bln dollar project to build a 900 kilometer (550 mile) pipeline to transfer gas from Iran’s energy hub of Assalouyeh to the province.
A 500 kilometer (300 mile) railway extension, scheduled to be completed in 2008, is being built that will connect Zahedan to Bam in the neighboring Kerman province and the national network.
Improvements in the local economy could go some way towards ending the instability that has dogged the province, be it from fuel smuggling, drug-trafficking or insurgents.
Thirteen IRGC members were killed in February in a militant bomb attack in the centre of Zahedan, the deadliest such strike anywhere in Iran in years.
The last two weeks have seen bandits in the region abduct two Belgian tourists as well as 21 Iranians who were whisked into Pakistan before being freed.
Iran blames its arch enemy the United States for stirring unrest in the region and backing Abdolmalek Rigi, a shadowy young Sunni militant whose Jundallah group has been behind a string of attacks in the province.