The Paradoxical Politician
The 49-year old mayor of Tehran was born in 1961, in Torghabeh, a resort city near Iran’s religious hub and second-largest city, Mashhad. A young, zealous revolutionary—as most Iranians in the late 1970s were—Qalibaf joined the newborn Revolutionary Guards to fight against Saddam Hussein’s army that launched a bloody war against Iran in 1980. At the age of 22, he became the commander of the Fifth Nasr Division of Khorasan Province, not too surprising considering that ‘the-youth-of-the-Revolution-should-be-trusted’ attitude of those days had elevated Mohsen Rezayi to commander of the Revolutionary Guards when he was only in his late 20s.
Iranians may still remember that Hot Seat talk show episode in which Qalibaf burst into tears in front of the camera while recounting the story of how he never had the opportunity to say farewell to his brother before he was killed in action. On his personal website, Qalibaf says: “the way some treat me is akin to their saying: either [confess] you are a military dictator, or you should regret your military background…no, there are no regrets…I’m still proud that I was a Pasdaar [Revolutionary Guard]”.
In the early post-war years, Qalibaf was appointed as head of the Khatam-ol-Anbiya’ Construction Headquarters, a key affiliate of the Revolutionary Guards that due to the remarkable know-how it had accumulated during the war, was integrated in the nation’s economic activities during the presidential term of Hashemi Rafsanjani. During Khatami’s presidency, Qalibaf was appointed as head of the police forces, a dysfunctional institution with an already damaged public perception in the aftermath of the crackdown on students’ pro-democracy protests in 1999. His efforts to restore prestige to the police forces proved highly effective. In his early days in the office, Qalibaf took the step of dropping all lawsuits against newspapers. The modernization of police equipment, launching of the 110 emergency lines, and the “Electronic Police” were his most significant projects intended to overhaul the police force. Many reformists, though, prefer to remember him by the arrest and mistreatment of young reformist bloggers in summer of 2004.
Heartened by his own performance and the public’s reception, Qalibaf decided to enter the 2005 presidential election, the most diverse presidential election of the Islamic Republic up until then, where two reformist candidates (Karroubi and Mo’een) challenged three principlist candidates (Larijani, Ahmadinejad and Qalibaf), while Rafsanjani had returned to the race deeming himself as the ‘savior’ of the country, and when a minor candidate, Mehralizadeh, was trying to gain the vote of ethnic Azeris.
It was probably not the best time for Qalibaf, who while known as a ‘competent executive’ –an epithet rarely granted by Iranians to any official- had little political experience. His off-hand remark that he aspired to be a “Hezbollahi Reza Khan”1 was criticized even by the Supreme Leader. His efforts to project an image of himself as a modern, technocrat president were neutralized by the reformists’ powerful media, who ran a bitter smear campaign against him, alleging him to be the candidate of the ‘real power locus’ in Iranian politics, and tried to focus on his military background. Rather than becoming an advantage, Qalibaf’s claim to be a ‘reformist principlist’ instead turned him into the target of a two-pronged assault by both reformists and hardliner principlists. In any event, in an election in which diversity deprived all the candidates from gaining a plurality of votes, Qalibaf finished fifth with 4.07 million votes, while the front-runner, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had received only 6.16 million.
The election was probably a taste of what was about to happen four years later, on June 12th 2009. Hashemi Rafsanjani and Karroubi had refrained from attending Ahmadinejad’s inauguration ceremony in 2005 –believing that ‘hidden forces’ had led to his victory- while unexpectedly, Qalibaf had seemingly preferred to engage in training courses in airplane navigation in France rather than be present. He was, however, elected the same year as mayor of Tehran by the city council -defeating an Ahmadinejad-backed candidate by a narrow margin (eight to seven).
Qalibaf’s tenure in Tehran’s municipality is best marked by his struggle with Ahmadinejad, who eyes him warily as a potential powerful ally. Throughout these years, the mayor of Tehran has consistently complained about the government’s tightfistedness when it comes to the budget allocated to transportation facilities, especially the Tehran metro. A newspaper affiliated with him, “Tehran-e Emrooz” (Tehran Today) was shut down for seven months after publishing a not-so-complimentary photo of Ahmadinejad. A typical case of the zero-sum game in Iranian domestic politics, the media battle between Hamshahri (the official newspaper of Tehran municipality) and Iran (the government’s official paper) has never ceased to exist. Nevertheless, Qalibaf’s record in governing Tehran may be even more impressive than his term in the police forces: the launching of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines, expanding the metro network, impressive funding of cultural construction projects, and mechanizing the garbage collection system are all major accomplishments. Every now and again, though, complaints are heard about his authoritarian management style and his lack of transparency in fiscal affairs
Sensing the political tastes of power centers at the time, Qalibaf sidestepped the 2009 presidential election. He kept the middle ground during the post-election battles, and while in the early days of the post-election protests in Tehran he expressed condolences for the dead, Qalibaf later called on all political parties to follow the line of the Supreme Leadership.
Qalibaf prefers to keep his distance from politics these days, while Ahmadinejad supporters attack his policies, especially his cultural approach which they believe undermines the ‘values and principles’ of the Islamic Republic. His trademark expensive suits –which juxtaposed with Ahmadinejad’s modest jackets appear unorthodox- and his endeavor to depict himself as one-politician-fits-all have prompted some radical Ahmadinejad-ist bloggers to refer to him mockingly as ‘Dr. Captain Commander Qalibaf”.
Iranian political dynamics cannot be more ambiguous under the current circumstances. One year after a controversial presidential election –with ramifications that no one could ever imagine- it is not clear in which direction things will move. Will Qalibaf enter the next presidential election? Or will he prefer to stay in the ‘green zone’? A great deal of time is needed for the answers to become clear.
1 Reza Pahlavi, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was known for his
authoritarian modernization plans.