TEHRAN // When Eid begins, Iran's capital will welcome a new addition to the city's skyline, the Milad Telecommunications Tower, which rises 435 metres and is held up as symbol of Iran's entry to the 21st century, but also its ability to overcome sanctions imposed for its nuclear programme. While most people in the city are proud of the new tower, they still see the 40-year-old Azadi Tower as the city's most iconic landmark.
The old tower, completed in 1971, was originally named Shahyad Aryamehr, or King Memorial Tower. It had been built as a memorial to the Pahlavi dynasty, but after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the tower and the 15,000-sq-m square surrounding it were renamed Azadi, meaning freedom. Every year, anniversary celebrations of the revolution are held on the square, which has also seen fiery speeches and many demonstrations against the United States and the West.
The new communications building towers above the Azadi and is part of the Tehran Trade and Convention Centre. It is the world's fourth tallest telecommunications tower and the 12th highest free-standing structure in the world. It can be seen from almost anywhere in the capital. "Milad Tower is really imposing and Azadi Tower looks like a toy compared to it. It is a testimony to the huge accomplishments of Iranian architects and engineers who have built it without any foreign help," said Ahmad Soleimani, 65, a retired government employee.
"This tower was built when our country was under sanctions and our engineers had to overcome so many limitations and face so many challenges created by international sanctions," said Reza Mohammadi, 38, a civil engineer. "So to me, it can be a symbol of the revolutionary spirit in addition to being a symbol of modernity. It definitely qualifies as the first choice for the symbol of our city." One such challenge involved acquiring special earthquake-proof glass panels and aluminium frames for the middle pod of the tower that houses the largest rotating restaurant in the world.
"We had to import these, but western companies were reluctant or refused to sell them to Iran, claiming that the special grade of aluminium used for the frames and the polarising glass could have military uses," said Reza Mir Sadeghi, the managing director of Yadman Sazeh Construction Co, the contractor for the project. "The aluminium frames were frequently held up at the borders of European countries and were released only when we offered plans and documents to convince them that these were meant to be used in the construction of the tower," he said.
"Some of the glass panels arrived but the six-month delay in their arrival made their installation a big challenge. Our people had to install them in the winter at an altitude of 300 metres when the temperature was 28 degrees Celsius below where they were working," Mr Mir Sadeghi said. Mr Mir Sadeghi said they had to import the technical know-how and manufacture two-thirds of the glass panels in Iran. "We can even export this kind of glass now," he said.
Another challenge for Iranian engineers was installation of the 120-m tall antenna when western companies refused to hire out special helicopters to the Iranian contractor to lift the pieces of the antenna to the top of the tower. "We had to pull up the four pieces of the antenna, weighing around a hundred tonnes each, through the middle shaft. It was very risky and had never been done before but we had no other choice and we did it," Mr Mir Sadeghi said.
The construction of the tower has taken 12 years, much longer than it had originally been perceived by Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, the mayor of Tehran at the time, who launched the project in 1997. Mr Karbaschi, secretary general of the reformist technocrat Servants of Construction Party, was a year later accused of corruption by political adversaries who controlled the judiciary. He was sentenced to three years in prison after a trial that many saw as politically motivated. He was later pardoned by the Supreme Leader Seyed Ali Khamenei and released from prison.
It has taken five other mayors after him, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now the president, to complete the project. The mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, has overseen completion of more than 56 per cent of the project in the past 26 months. Mr Qalibaf ran unsuccessfully against Mr Ahmadinejad in presidential elections of 2005. Many consider the completion of the tower project one of the achievements of the pragmatic conservative Mr Qalibaf, a former commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards air force. Mr Qalibaf is considered as one of the likely candidates in next year's presidential elections in June.