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Ghalibaf’s Toils And Troubles

May 4, 2017
Reza HaghighatNejad
5 min read
Ghalibaf’s Toils And Troubles

For the third time, Tehran’s mayor Bagher Ghalibaf is running for president. But although he came across as a strong, if rancorous, contender in last week’s presidential debates, once again, he has failed to attract support from a large section of Iran’s conservative camp. 

Earlier this year, as Iran was gearing up for this year’s presidential election in May, political infighting was still dominating Iran’s political landscape — especially among the country’s principlist conservatives. Instead of forging a tactic that might fend off Hassan Rouhani’s chance for another four years, they saw opportunities to dismantle their key rivals closer to home. And, not for the first time, Ghalibaf has bore the brunt of these efforts. 

When it seemed likely that Ebrahim Raeesi, the head of the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation and Assembly of Experts member, would be put forward as a presidential candidate, Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh, a parliamentary representative and a member of the hardline alliance Islamic Revolution Endurance Front, saw his chance. On February 20, he predicted that if Raeesi agreed to run, it would mean the downfall of what he called “the works” — the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces (PFIRF), a rival principlist coalition.

As it happened, Raeesi, also a favorite of the Revolutionary Guards, did announce his candidacy on April 6, but the “works” were not dismantled. PFIRF stayed put and eventually endorsed both Raeesi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. PFIRF’s power to galvanize support for Ghalibaf stayed intact, and the Endurance Front’s plan for the PFIRF to disappear once and for all was scuppered. 

When Saeed Jalili, the former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, decided not to register to run as a presidential candidate, some Endurance Front members persuaded him to endorse Raeesi — again in an effort to ensure potential votes for Jalili were not converted into an endorsement of Ghalibaf.

With the support of Jalili’s allies and the Revolutionary Guards, the Endurance Front successfully launched a more effective campaign for Raeesi than it did for Ghalibaf, arguing that Raeesi has more clout than Tehran’s mayor. While Ghalibaf has spent his time shouting to crowds in Tehran, the Endurance Front and other allies have been busy arranging welcoming ceremonies and rallies for Raeesi in other cities and towns. And they have set out to discredit Ghalibaf’s aggressive debating style. 

Following the first presidential series of debates, the website Raja News reported that Raeesi’s performance would convert into more votes than Ghalibaf’s would, purely because he refused to fall into the trap of “arguments, controversy and disclosures” — a clear reference to Ghalibaf’s debate tactics, which involved presenting unsavory facts about President Rouhani and attacking him whenever he got a chance. The pro-Raeesi camp’s view was that their candidate would do better simply because he did not emanate such extreme negativity. 

A Traitor to the Cause

On May 3, the Endurance Front launched another attack on Ghalibaf. It announced that Raeesi was the most qualified candidate and if “somebody” less qualified did not pull out in support of him, that person would be considered a traitor to the cause. From the Endurance Front’s perspective, Raeesi is now the only candidate the principlists can support. But this is a tricky position to be in, considering how unpredictable the next weeks of campaigning are likely to be. 

This is the third time in his political life that Ghalibaf has been confronted with this problem. When he ran for president in 2005, principlists threw their support behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to succeed the reformist president Mohammad Khatami. Ghalibaf came in fourth. In 2013, Saeed Jalili and Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister and a trusted advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei, refused to support Ghalibaf. And now, in 2017, Ebrahim Raeesi has stepped into the arena as his nemesis.

No Substitute for the Presidency

There are two opposing assumptions about Ghalibaf, and both of them are wrong. Some say he wants to help elect Raeesi and others read his political will as an attempt to ruin Raeesi straight out. Neither is true. More than anything, Ghalibaf’s two-decade long career in public life has shown that he loves power.  He will only be satisfied if he becomes president. In the 2013 election, he came second, and while it is true that he wants to take revenge on Rouhani, for him this revenge would be only meaningful if he was the one to get elected. So far, his attacks on Rouhani have done nothing to help him.

But the important question is this: If the principlists hope  — and many do — that having Ghalibaf stay in the race means the election will be forced into a second round, then why is the Endurance Front so determined to destroy Ghalibaf, even though a second round would be a significant blow to Rouhani? The answer is simple: They are worried that Raeesi won’t make it to the second round, and they do not want Ghalibaf to make it past the first one.

Under these conditions, Ghalibaf has to fight on more than one front. For the benefit of the Revolutionary Guards and principlists who are currently refusing to stand with him, he must answer for his record of corruption and mismanagement as Tehran’s mayor. He has to confront Rouhani’s vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri, who is also running for president and was very effective in countering him during last week’s debates. And he must fend off the angry attacks coming from the Endurance Front.

Ghalibaf’s toils and troubles are many indeed.

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