London – Twelve years after running as mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Bagher Qaliba will attempt for a third time to run for the presidency in Iran. He had in recent months however faced real estate corruption scandals, but that has not deterred him from registering in the elections.
Qalibaf is one of hundreds of thousands of Iranian teenagers, who were swallowed up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ brainwashing machine in the early days of its formation. He is also one of the few residents from the town of Torqabeh who survived the Iraqi-Iranian war to later find himself occupying one of the highest military positions in the body tasked with protecting the trinity of the supreme leader, regime and revolution.
Qalibaf was born to a middle class family in August 1961 in Torqabeh near Mashhad, the second largest Iranian city. Qalibaf means carpet weaver in Persian. When he was 17, Ayatollah al-Khomeini formed the Wilayat al-Faqih regime after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was created in 1980 at the beginning of the Iraqi-Iranian war. Qalibaf soon joined the ranks of the fighters in the southwestern fronts of the country.
Two years after joining the Guards, he became the commander of the “Imam Reza” brigade of fighters hailing from Khorasan before commanding, at the age of 22, the “Khorasan Victory” legion, one of the most prominent Guard legions during the war.
At the end of the war, he assumed the command of the “Khatem al-Anbiya” group, the economic branch of the Guards, before becoming commander of Guard air force between 1997 and 2000. Qalibaf was among the commander who received military training in North Korea in 1995. He also holds a doctorate in geopolitics from the conservative Tarbiat Modares University.
Days after the eruption of student protests in July 1999, the most prominent commanders of the Revolutionary Guards issued a strongly worded letter to then president Mohammed Khatami, threatening to intervene to quell the rallies if the government did not. The letter held greater significance in that it threatened to stage a military coup against the “reformist” government. This marked the most blatant form of Iranian Revolutionary Guards meddling in government affairs since its establishment.
In a recording that was later leaked by Iranian media, Qalibaf was heard as saying that he left his office, baton in hand, and headed to the streets to confront the students. He acknowledged that he and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Guards’ Quds Force, wrote the message to Khatami. “When there is a need to go down to the streets, we strike with a baton. We will be among those striking with the baton,” Qalibaf said at the time.
After the student protests, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei selected Qalibaf to head the Iranian police force. In his new position, he modernized the force by arming it with the latest equipment, but this period also saw a spike in restrictions imposed on activists, artists and intellectuals.
During the 2013 presidential debates, Qalibaf attempted to strike a blow to then candidate Hassan Rouhani by speaking about the need to adopt political openness, accusing him of preventing the issuing of permits to hold political activities when he served as secretary general of the national security council. Rouhani retaliated with a greater blow by saying: “It is true that we should be competing, but not in this way. I did not want to say this, but you are forcing me to. You once said: ‘Allow the students to draw near. We have the pincer plan attack.’ We said that we will not issue permits so that you will not be able to use them to carry out mass arrests.”
The label of “pincer” has followed Qalibaf wherever he goes.
His military background has benefitted his rivals in all three of the presidential races he entered. His competitors have always referred to his security and military record and his lack of clear political rhetoric. His portrayal as a candidate who makes orders in a military fashion has harmed his chances in winning the votes of those seeking more political and social freedoms in Iran.
First Electoral Failure
In 2005, Qalibaf left the police force and his military background behind to officially enter the political arena by running for president. The experience was however a complete failure as he came in fourth behind former Presidents Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Akbar Hashemi and reformist Mehdi Karroubi.
Three months after his defeat, the capital’s municipal council, which is dominated by conservatives, voted for him as Tehran mayor to succeed Ahmadinejad.
Second Presidential Run
In 2013, Qalibaf again attempted to run for president, under the slogan of “Life – People – Change.” This time around, he advanced to the second round, but he lost by a wide margin to eventual winner Hassan Rouhani.
During the 12 years he served as Tehran mayor, he sought to raise income through selling land around the capital and turning the agricultural property into commercial ones. He is therefore facing accusations that his measures targeted the poor in Tehran and its suburbs.
Third Presidential Run
In this year’s elections, Qalibaf toned down his usual rhetoric, which he had been adopting for the past eight years, and instead rehashed those of Ahmadinejad by focusing on issues that concern the middle and lower classes, specifically their livelihoods. The media has meanwhile portrayed him as a modest man, who prefers the simple life, as opposed to the image of the charismatic man, who wears expensive suits. This is the same image that Soleimani seeks to project to Iranians. During the second presidential debate that took place on May 5, Qalibaf defended Ahmadinejad’s government performance, saying that it addressed the poor classes more than Rouhani’s administration. Ahmadinejad did not shy away from voicing his displeasure with Qalibaf’s approach, accusing him of usurping his electoral platform.
Qalibaf’s electoral run pits him against another conservative, hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, the former general prosecutor. The two candidates were unveiled by the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, which is comprised of a group of conservative parties seeking to avoid a repeat of the 2013 presidential elections defeat. The Front had announced that one of the candidates will withdraw from the race in favor of the one who has a better chance of winning. In this case, Raisi is seen as the victor against Qalibaf after he received the backing of three of the most important religious groups in Iran, while no conservative party has announced its support for Qalibaf.
Qalibaf should not however be underestimated. He has the ability to carry out electoral campaigns throughout Iran and owns several media outlets that will promote his electoral platform.
He has however been faced with real estate corruption scandals and accused of shortcomings in handling a fire that broke out in a Tehran mall that saw the deaths of 15 fire fighters and 10 citizens.
Should he be elected president, Qalibaf has vowed to create four million job opportunities, but his rivals have portrayed him as a “general”, who is seeking to curb freedoms, eliminate women from the workforce and reinstate the security policies of Ahmadinejad.
The candidate enjoys the support of the most prominent and influential Revolutionary Guards members and he has good ties with Soleimani. Raisi also enjoys similar support among the Guards. Observers see this as a factor that may force Qalibaf to withdraw from the race in favor of the better candidate. It was said that the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces had promised Qalibaf that he could be appointed vice president if he is not elected president.
We can say that the aspirations of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ “Khorasan golden child” have stumbled in face of the aspirations of Ebrahim Raisi, the judiciary’s “Khorasan golden child.” Raisi is eying becoming Iran’s next supreme leader, a position occupied by another Khorasan native, Ali Khamenei. Fate could play in Qalibaf’s favor where Raisi could don Khamenei’s cape and he would replace him in the presidential seat.