Iran Election Watch 2013: Ghalibaf’s schizophrenic electioneering

2013 Iranian presidential election candidate-registrant Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf has tried to steer a course between hardliners and moderates. Ghalibaf recognizes that there are two potential source of power that he can appeal to if he is to have a chance at winning the presidency: The Islamic Republic’s hardline political establishment which includes Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on one hand and moderate Iranian voters on the other. We here at IranPolitik contend that at least since the 2009 Iranian presidential election, if not earlier, the hardline establishment has been a more important source of power. Regardless, by navigating a steady course between the two, a Principalist candidate could theoretically gain the support of both sources of power and win the presidency. However the recent release of two recordings of speeches he made, one allegedly to a private gathering of the hardline Basij and the other to a public gather of Sharif University of Technology students, gives the impression that rather than a well crafted strategy to navigate between hardliners and moderates Ghalibaf may in fact be running on two opposite political platforms.

The controversy centers on what Ghalibaf did or did not do as chief of police in 2003, although the full story begins earlier. On 06 July 1999 Salam daily newspaper, associated with then President Mohammad Khatami and the Reformists, released top-secret documents which were potentially damaging to the hardliners. In retaliation, hardliners ordered the newspaper closed. This sparked the 18th Tir Uprising from 09 – 14 July, during which public demonstrations resulted in a brutal police attack on the University of Tehran’s dormitory which left 3-7 people dead and many others critically wounded. In 2003 UT students in the dormitory decided to commemorate the 18 Tir Uprising and prepared for a violent confrontation with the police. Enter Ghalibaf.

The leaked audio recording is believed to be from a speech Ghalibaf gave to the Basij during a private meeting a few weeks ago, although this has not been officially confirmed. In the audio Ghalibaf is trying to make himself appear very hardline toward Reformists and students. He states that when he went before the Supreme Security Council of the Country in 2003, which included the minister of interior, higher education, and chancellor of the UT, and had been called to deal with the students, he was denied the right to enter the dormitory and open fire. Ghalibaf claims that he spoke in such harsh terms to the council that then supreme commander of the IRGC Major-General Rahim Safavi had to try and calm him down. Ghalibaf asserts that he ignored Safavi’s entreaties and continued his verbal assault against the council, proclaiming to them that he would send his police into the dormitory and put students in their place. According to him the council relented and signed the order, but that things calmed down and there was no need to carry out an attack on the dormitory. In this audio Ghalibaf also claims that when he was commander of the IRGC Airforce in 1999 he personally took part in suppressing the 18 Tir Uprising by riding on the back of a motorcycle and hitting protesters with a stick.

The confirmed video recording of Ghalibaf publically speaking to students at Sharif University of Technology however sings a very different tune. Here Ghalibaf states that: “During the session of the Supreme Security Council [of the Country], our friends in the Second of Khordad Movement [Reformists] sat down and gave the Security Force [police], which I was commander of, permission to enter the student dormitory hill and open fire, but I did no such thing.”

Ghalibaf is trying to sell two opposite versions of the same event to two different audiences. In one he presents himself as being very hardline, so much so that he verbally attacks sitting ministers and other notables on the council and claims that as IRGC Airforce commander he took the time from his presumably busy schedule to personally attack street demonstrators. Even the controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has never tried to portray himself as being this hardline, at least publicly. In his other version of events he presents himself as being exceedingly moderate. Regardless of which version, if any, is true it is unlikely to win him any friends. His strategy of presenting two completely different versions of himself smacks of pure opportunism and is unlikely to win him either the backing of the hardline establishment or moderate voters. This schizophrenia may have been what led Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the IRGC to switch their support from Ghalibaf to Ahmadinejad’s candidacy shortly before the 2005 Iranian presidential election.

There is a school of thought on the 2013 election which contends that Ghalibaf is popular among moderate voters, especially the urban middle-class, and could use this and his IRGC credentials to convince the hardline establishment to support him. It is too soon to count Ghalibaf out of the race yet. For all we know, Ghalibaf is not the only candidate to engage in this kind of duplicitous campaigning. However, if true, these recordings potentially show unreconciled tensions in his electoral strategy which are a recipe for failure. Neither the hardline establishment or moderate voters are likely to be convinced.