In Iran’s second presidential debate on May 5, presidential candidate and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf accused President Rouhani’s government of corruption. To prove his point, in answer to a question about education, Ghalibaf claimed that the education minister’s daughter was guilty of illegally importing children’s clothing from Italy. Now, in a tit for tat move, Mohammad Ali Vakili, a spokesman for Rouhani’s campaign, has demanded that Ghalibaf answer for the business activities of his son Elias, including involvement in tax evasion schemes.
“She was found not guilty by the court,” Vakili told reporters [link in Persian] when asked about the minister’s daughter a day after the debate. If what she did was wrong, he said, “then it is wrong for Mr. Ghalibaf’s son as well.” He pointed out that Elias Ghalibaf has been involved in domestic and international commerce and business for many years and added that, as long as nepotism was not involved, there was nothing wrong with engaging in commerce per se. He then added that “it would be a good idea if Mr. Ghalibaf would explain his son’s activities.”
Back in 2014, Elias Ghalibaf’s name cropped up in reports of a financial scandal. On April 21, 2014 Iranian media reported that Ghalibaf, who was also Tehran Municipality’s media advisor, had been arrested for financial misdeeds in connection with an educational institute by the name of Shams al-Shamus. He had been held in custody for 24 hours. The reports were later removed from news sites after Tehran Municipality denied the news and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf claimed that his son was merely a “teacher.”
But on May 1 of the same year, the Khordad News website published documents casting doubt on Ghalibaf’s defense of his son. According to the website, Shams al-Shamus, the titleholder of a non-profit school in Tehran’s Sa'adat Abad district that had started up with a declared capital of only 100,000 tomans, or around $30, was now the owner of a property worth 20 billion tomans, or close to $6 million. Elias Ghalibaf began work with the institute as its CEO but was later elected the president of its board of directors. The school in question attracted further media attention because it reportedly only accepted girls who come from “hijab-believing” families.
According to the documents published by Khordad News [link in Persian], the site where the school was set up belonged to a member of the board of directors. But a year after the institute was officially registered it was leased to another member of the board for a suspiciously low deposit of around $15,5000 and a monthly payment of around $1,200 as part of a suspected scheme to evade taxes.
After this report was published, Mohammad Bagher and Elias Ghalibaf filed a complaint against Amir Abedpour, managing editor of the website, and Reza Raeesi, its reporter. But after reviewing the evidence provided by Khordad News, the Press Court’s jury acquitted them of the charges of libel and “confusing the public mind.”
Elias Ghalibaf is also reputed to be the head of his father’s “media empire.” The conglomerate own several news sites and used to publish the newspaper Tehran-e Emrouz, which was banned after a year in operation. The board of directors of this corporation consists mostly of people close to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, including Hadi Ayazi, deputy mayor for cultural and social affairs, Mehdi Hashemi Tashakori, deputy mayor for transportation and traffic, Mehdi Zakeri, managing editor of the newspaper Hamshahri, which is published by Tehran Municipality, and Parviz Esmaili, former managing editor of Mehr News Agency.
The corporation is active in other cultural fields as well. For example, it produced the film About Elly, directed by the famed Iranian director Asghar Farhadi.
In the summer of 2015, the name of Elias Ghalibaf once again found its way into Iranian media, this time in connection with a $2.5 million embezzlement at Tehran Municipality. There were rumors that Elias was directly involved and that he had spent a few days in custody because of it. To counter the reports, Tehran Municipality announced that that whole annual budget of the municipality was only $2.5 million.
The reports were also denied by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Elias himself and the spokesman for the judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei. “I am Elias Ghalibaf, a student of education management and I work for an educational complex,” Elias posted on his Instagram page. “I don’t live a life of luxury. I am not abroad or in prison. I am neither a thief or an embezzler.” An interesting point here is that during the 2013 presidential election, Ghalibaf’s campaign literature maintained that Elias had a Master’s in business management from a Malaysian university.
Of course, during his time as mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has also faced corruption accusations, including the “astronomical properties case,” which resulted in Tehran councillors allegedly profiting from property deals. Although Ghalibaf ordered an investigation into the scandal, the reformist newspaper Shargh and the Memari News website reported that the mayor helped make it possible for these councillors to buy land and housing at a significant discount. Journalists reporting on the scandal were later targeted, resulting in their arrests.
So the reminder that Ghalibaf’s son, too, has been accused of corruption will do little to help the mayor’s bid to become president. This added blow to his reputation couldn’t have come at a more critical time.