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Argument

Corruption Is a Job Qualification in Today’s Iran

Iran’s new speaker of parliament is widely known for being a crook—but a loyal one.

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is pictured during an interview with AFP in Tehran on Jan. 9, 2012.
Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is pictured during an interview with AFP in Tehran on Jan. 9, 2012. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

In the minds of many Iranians, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Iran’s new speaker of parliament, is identified less with his political and military credentials than with corruption. A 58-year-old trained pilot from Iran’s northeastern province of Khorasan, Qalibaf has an arguably unrivaled track record of illicit public self-dealing. His tenures as mayor of Tehran, national police chief, and head of the national anti-trafficking headquarters were marked by some of the most high-profile corruption and embezzlement cases in the nation’s post-revolutionary history. One instance involved Qalibaf as mayor granting several close associates more than $500 million worth of estates and buildings in Tehran’s affluent north at cut-rate prices. An investigation motion was tabled in the parliament but ultimately shelved after 132 lawmakers voted against it under intense lobbying pressure.

Even by the warped meritocracy standards of the Islamic Republic, Qalibaf’s ascent to the top of Iran’s legislature, given the risk it poses to the government’s legitimacy, seems to require an explanation. It becomes more understandable when one realizes that Qalibaf’s politically calculated and ultimately state-serving corruption wasn’t a hurdle to his rapid promotion but part of the very reason for it. Amid the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, the Iranian establishment has found the virtue of having its own crook in power.

Whatever his faults, nobody has ever doubted Qalibaf’s loyalty to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Like many other top Iranian power holders today, Qalibaf earned his early political credentials in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, when he served as commander of Imam Reza-21 Brigade and 5th Nasr Division, two military units consisting mostly of combatants from his home province—which happens to be where current supreme leader Ali Khamenei hails from. After the war, with Khamenei’s backing, Qalibaf was appointed deputy chief of the Basij (mobilization) militia force before being promoted to chief of IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbiya headquarters in 1994 and commander of the IRGC air force in 1997.

Qalibaf has now been embraced by the Iranian leadership in the hope that he will play a central role in the creation of a more harmonious and homogeneous political system dominated by hard-line insiders and loyalists. Given the increasing strangulation of the Iranian economy—on June 13, Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri admitted that Iran’s total oil revenue plummeted to $8 billion in 2019 from an average of $100 billion a year—and the likelihood of another four years of crippling sanctions or even war if U.S. President Donald Trump is reelected in November, Tehran seems to believe that it can weather the storm safely only if it acts in concert and harmony. And that means an incremental takeover of the government and the economy by hard-liners loyal to the country’s top military and clerical leadership. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh declared on June 9, in a ceremony featuring senior officials from the Iranian Ministry of Industry, Mine, and Trade, that the IRGC would be entering into the auto industry—a reportedly $15 billion market traditionally controlled by moderates and their pragmatic conservative allies in Iran’s business community.

With the judiciary— led by Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, known for his direct role in the 1988 mass executions of political prisoners—and the legislature now in hard-liner hands, the next goal will be to control the executive branch. Qalibaf will probably face his first major political test in the 2021 presidential vote as he will likely be expected to help facilitate the election of a like-minded politician. In his first address as Majlis speaker, he accused the “moderate” administration of President Hassan Rouhani, his rival in the 2017 presidential elections, of “managerial disarray and inefficacy” and railed against its “outward look.” Hossein Allahkaram, a famed hard-line rabble-rouser, even went as far in a June 7 interview as to encourage efforts to deny anyone from the “reformist camp” the “right” to run for president in 2021.

In contrast to his predecessor, Ali Larijani, whose measured support for Rouhani’s foreign policy of engagement with the West had proven pivotal in sustaining the 2015 nuclear deal, Qalibaf has described negotiations with the United States as “pointless and pernicious,” insisting instead on “completing the chain of revenge for martyr [Qassem] Soleimani’s blood” and “augmenting the power of ‘axis of resistance.’” In a clear sign of shifting attitudes toward foreign and security policy matters, he appointed Mahdi Mohammadi, a hard-line member of Iran’s former nuclear negotiation team under Saeed Jalili—secretary of the Supreme National Security Council from 2007 to 2013 and currently Khamenei’s representative on it—as his advisor on strategic affairs. A few days earlier on June 1, Jalili, who has set his sights on the 2021 presidential elections, urged the new parliament in a letter to Qalibaf to monitor the state affairs like a “shadow” and thus act as a “shadow administration” in “confirming, completing and correcting” policies of the executive branch.

Meanwhile, the widely publicized large-scale corruption trial of Akbar Tabari—executive deputy to former Chief Justice Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani—along with vehement calls for Larijani’s own prosecution by hard-line ideologues close to the Revolutionary Guard suggest a likely fall from grace for the powerful Larijani family, who were, until recently, in control of both the judiciary and the legislature. These calls, coupled with growing ties between Qalibaf and Jalili, could be symptomatic of efforts behind the scenes to undermine former Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani’s chances of success if he decides to run for president in 2021.

A more conformist, centralized, and streamlined system of decision-making is also deemed necessary to guarantee a smooth leadership succession and transition of power to the next supreme leader upon Khamenei’s death. At the moment, Chief Justice Raisi stands as the prime candidate, having so far successfully marginalized his former boss and rival, Sadeq Larijani. If Raisi ultimately wins the leadership succession contest, Iran will be led by a member of the “death commission” tasked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to carry out the mass execution of political inmates in 1988.

The state-led exclusionary homogenization is, however, not limited to politics and political decision-making. Backed by hard-liners in power, it is swiftly extended to social and media spheres, too. On June 21, Iranian security forces stormed the offices of the Imam Ali Popular Students Relief Society and arrested its directors. A widely popular nongovernmental charity with more than 10,000 members, the society was established in 1999 and has since earned a good reputation, especially over the past few years, for its effective poverty and disaster relief initiatives—in sharp contrast to the often-corrupt and inefficient interventions of the government, including the Revolutionary Guard. Unsurprisingly, Tasnim News Agency, which is close to the IRGC, has accused the society and its founders of “network-building in the guise of charitable measures” to infiltrate and “influence public opinion on various levels.” It is also notable that the roundup came shortly after Gen. Hossein Nejat, a well-connected hard-line IRGC veteran, was appointed as deputy commander of Sarallah Corps, which is tasked with security in Tehran and protection of state bodies based in the capital. A former commander of Vali-e Amr (Supreme Leader) Corps—in charge of Khamenei and his household’s security—Nejat excoriated the West after the November 2019 protests for striving to subvert the Islamic Republic by provoking the poor and “low” classes of the society, whom, he stressed, have been “contaminated in the virtual sphere.” Quite relevantly, the new parliament is now systematically pushing for greater state control over the “unfettered” online environment and the filtering of Instagram in particular, with Qalibaf himself warning of families’ “exposure to a contaminated space.”

But the incremental hard-liner takeover is generating both popular discontent—which a more uniform system of governance would be better positioned to tackle—and, far less commonly, increased dissatisfaction among sidelined insiders within the establishment. Nowhere can this be seen more ostensibly today than in the high ranks of Iran’s regular army (Artesh), a professional military force that has traditionally been treated as a junior partner to the Revolutionary Guard. In a rare interview, deleted an hour after its publication May 24, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, a highly venerable veteran of the Iran-Iraq War and coordinating deputy chief of the army, implicitly criticized the Guard’s interventions in economy and politics, as well as attempts, mostly by IRGC-affiliated politicians and filmmakers, to portray the regular army as an unreliable and spineless force still beholden to the pre-revolutionary Pahlavi government.

“Is the army some sort of fridge, construction, or camera factory whose every move should be publicized in the media?” Sayyari pointedly asked, suggesting that such achievements are a matter of “national security” and should not be hyped up. His obvious dissatisfaction with “lack of kindness to the army”—particularly apparent in pro-IRGC narratives of the Iran-Iraq War—and the need for armed forces to steer clear of “politicization” and public spectacle echoed clear warnings by members of Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence about the security consequences of the celebrity status built around slain Quds Force commander Soleimani.

High-level objections to state discrimination against Artesh are not unprecedented, however. In June 2000, then-commander-in-chief of the army Gen. Ali Shahbazi resigned reportedly in protest against the top leadership’s unfair favoring of the IRGC air force during a legal dispute with the army over possession of a military base in the southern city of Shiraz that originally belonged to the latter. Interestingly, Qalibaf was chief commander of the Guard’s air force at the time.

Qalibaf’s rise to power is part of a grander scheme to ensure the long-term survival of the Islamic Republic “as is” at its most precarious juncture, marked on the one hand by a methodology of governance whose unsustainability has never been laid bare more clearly and on the other by foreign threats whose gravity have rarely been more formidable since the 1979 revolution.

This does not mean, however, that the Islamic Republic is anywhere near collapse, as Iran hawks inside and outside of the Trump administration seem to hope. As the Iranian nuclear dossier gradually returns to the international security agenda, thanks to Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and Iran’s retaliatory nuclear escalation, the incremental hard-liner takeover in Tehran just means that the Islamic Republic will do whatever it takes to stay in power, and this does not bode well for the future of democracy and prosperity in Iran, nor for the prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East.

Maysam Behravesh is a PhD candidate in political science at Lund University and a political analyst at the US-based geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics. He was an intelligence analyst and a security policy advisor in Iran from 2008 to 2010.

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