TEHRAN - A lethal explosion at an Iranian oil refinery during a visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday left the president unhurt but delivered an embarrassing blow to his drive to increase gasoline output and foil international sanctions.
Ahmadinejad appeared on state television shortly after the blast, which officials blamed on technical problems, lauding the inauguration of Iran’s latest refinery upgrade.
But two lawmakers said the plant was unsafe and should not have been rushed into production.
Thick smoke was seen rising from the refinery in Abadan, south-western Iran, close to the Iraqi border, but firefighters quickly had the blaze under control, Iranian news agencies said.
A plane was sent to evacuate the injured — suffering burns and smoke and gas inhalation — to a Tehran hospital.
The semi-official Mehr news agency, which initially put the death toll at two, said a gas leak had caused the blast, giving no source for its information. Iranian media did not speculate on the possibility of sabotage or an attack on the president.
“Unfortunately, we had an accident which led to a death but the rest of the injured were not severely hurt,” Abdolreza Mehra, managing-director of the Abadan Oil Refinery Company, told state television.
“During the launch of this newly built complex, with the presence of the president, everything went well, but we faced a minor accident,” he said.
The member of parliament for Abadan said a similar fire had broken out at the plant two weeks ago and his pleas to delay the inauguration until the problem was fixed had been ignored.
“Despite our repeated warnings, the managers of the refinery were not willing to cancel the ceremony and they insisted on holding the event,” Ali Mousavi Jaraf told the Mehr agency.
“The managers of the Abadan refinery along with those who were involved in this incident, particularly an event attended by the president, must be dealt with in the most severe way.
The damage to the plant at Abadan will 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 is 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 used to have 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.
The new Abadan unit was due to produce more than 4 million liters per day, a significant fraction of Iran’s daily consumption of 52-53 million liters.
The unit would be repaired and back on stream within 15 days, Ali-Reza Zeighami, head of the state-owned National Iranian Refining and Distribution Company, the official IRNA news agency said.
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.
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.
An Oil Ministry official was reported by the Fars news agency as saying the sacking of Mirkazemi had put at risk a plan to secure a petrochemicals plant from possible sabotage attacks.
Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Angus MacSwan