TEHRAN (Reuters) - An explosion at an Iranian oil refinery during a visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday killed two people and injured 12, the Mehr news agency said.
Ahmadinejad was not hurt and appeared on state television shortly after the blast giving a speech marking the inauguration of a new part of the Abadan refinery.
The semi-official Mehr said the cause of the blast and fire was a gas leak, giving no source for its information.
Thick smoke was seen rising from the refinery in Abadan, south-western Iran, close to the Iraqi border, but firefighters had the blaze under control, Iranian news agencies said. A plane was sent to evacuate the injured to a Tehran hospital.
Iranian media said the blast was caused by a technical fault and did not speculate on the possibility of an attack.
“This incident was not an act of intentional sabotage,” Hamid-Reza Katouzian, the head of Iran’s parliamentary energy committee, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars agency.
“Experts had forewarned that Abadan refinery was not ready to be inaugurated,” he told reporters. “The incident in Abadan refinery was due to technical problems.”
Industrial accidents are far from rare in Iran’s oil industry and state broadcaster IRIB said similar incidents had occurred in the weeks running up to the plant’s inauguration.
But Iran’s vital oil and gas infrastructure are often targets for sabotage and several rebel groups pursue bombing campaigns in various parts of the country.
Simultaneous explosions have damaged natural gas pipelines on two occasions this year, with authorities either giving no explanation or ruling out technical problems, implying foul play.
Any damage to the plant at Abadan would have no impact on oil exports from the world’s fifth-biggest exporter as it is involved in producing gasoline, not the production of crude.
But the blast is a blow to Iran’s drive to become self-sufficient in gasoline as international sanctions have squeezed its ability to import the automotive fuel.
“The Abadan refinery is the biggest and oldest in Iran, it continuously needs a lot of work and maintenance,” London-based energy consultant Mehdi Varzi told Reuters.
“Obviously anything along these lines is a setback if it part of the upgrading process to produce more gasoline.”
Western sanctions -- aimed at pressuring Tehran over the nuclear program some countries say is aimed at making atomic bombs -- were tightened a year ago to exploit Iran’s lack of domestic refinery capacity than meant it had to import 30 to 40 percent of its gasoline.
Iran implemented an emergency plan to produce gasoline in petrochemical plants and speed up new refinery projects, but many external experts dismiss Tehran’s claims that it is now at or close to self-sufficiency.
Ahmadinejad made no mention of the blast in his speech and praised the upgrade at the Abadan site as part of Iran’s strategy to foil sanctions.
“The enemy’s hope to exert pressure on Iran by restricting oil products has turned into complete desperation,” he said, according to IRIB. Iran says the sanctions are illegal and that its nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
The company that operates the refinery said any damage would soon be repaired.
“I assure you that by the effort of our staff the third phase of the refinery will go back on stream within the next 15 days,” said Ali-Reza Zeighami, head of the state-owned National Iranian Refining and Distribution Company, the official IRNA agency said.
As well as pressure from abroad, Ahmadinejad, is embroiled in a power struggle at home, having sacked Oil Minister Massoud Mirkazemi and appointing himself caretaker head of the ministry which controls Iran’s energy resources.
His critics said the move was motivated by Ahmadinejad’s desire to control Iran’s biggest source of revenue and a constitutional watchdog said he had no legal right to the post.
Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Angus MacSwan