Mehrdad Bazrpash’s Positioning Ahead of 2021

Prospective candidates have started positioning themselves for the 2021 presidential election in Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has already hinted at the kind of successor he’d like to see for Hassan Rouhani after eight years of his presidency—specifically a “young and Hezbollah” government. One such figure whose ambition and resume fit this bill is the controversial conservative Mehrdad Bazrpash, who was just named as president of the Supreme Audit Court by Iran’s newly-installed parliament.

A meteoric rise

At only 40 years old, Bazrpash, who was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has notched more positions of consequence in his career than most of his generational cohort. His father died during the Iran-Iraq War, and his status as a martyr’s son connected him to the orbit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A former head of the student Basij organization of Sharif University, Bazrpash used the position as an early steppingstone, reportedly becoming the leader of a “young counselors” group, which organized districts in Tehran in preparation for Ahmadinejad’s presidential candidacy. After his victory in 2005, Bazrpash was rewarded with a position as an advisor in the presidential office. During this period, he spearheaded a crackdown on university unrest for Ahmadinejad, with press accounts indicating that he organized Basij volunteers to thwart an attempt by Sharif University students to prevent the burial of soldiers from the Iran-Iraq War.

But Bazrpash was already impatient to create an electoral brand of his own, running unsuccessfully for a seat on the Tehran City Council merely a year into Ahmadinejad’s first term in 2006. During his campaign he spoke of the need for “integrated civic management” with national authorities.

Despite the loss, Ahmadinejad continued to promote Bazrpash. He was also bolstered by family ties to a member of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, having married the daughter of then Education Minister Alireza Ali-Ahmadi. Bazrpash was then anointed the improbable chief executive of Iranian automakers Pars Khodro and later SAIPA. He was inexperienced compared to other figures who have occupied such lofty positions. For example, SAIPA’s current chief executive is Javad Soleimani, who had served previously as a senior vice president at Iran Khodro Industrial Group and as CEO of two petrochemical companies. Bazrpash’s resume at that point in his career paled in comparison. During his tenure at the automakers, Bazrpash presided over the unveiling of models like the Miniator, with a populist twist pledging that “[t]he price of the car will certainly be less than 100 million rials, but we will try to lower the price to less than 90 million rials.”

Corruption allegations trailed Bazrpash during these years. Iran newspaper reported that Bazrpash repeatedly allocated 300 million tomans for himself while at SAIPA. There were even rumors of SAIPA financing part of Ahmadinejad’s reelection campaign in 2009—speculation which coincided with Bazrpash’s tenure at the conglomerate. In fact, Bazrpash conveniently launched a pro-Ahmadinejad newspaper, Vatan-e Emrooz, right before the 2009 election.

Yet Ahmadinejad continued to reward Bazrpash. After his reelection, Bazrpash became vice president and director of the National Youth Organization. Only months later, the Tehran Times claimed Bazrpash was a strong favorite to become welfare and social security minister. But he abruptly fell out of favor with his longtime patron. In December 2010, Bazrpash was fired following an internal power struggle with Ahmadinejad’s then chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Bazrpash had chastised Mashaei’s meddling in the National Youth Organization.

Building a brand of his own

But he quickly found a landing spot. It was around this time that the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) appointed Bazrpash as a deputy of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation. This was an important career move, as it enabled Bazrpash to build a network within the IRGC, independent of his association with Ahmadinejad.

Bazrpash soon after won a seat in parliament in 2012. He rose rapidly through the legislative chamber, winning enough votes to be elected as a secretary of its presiding board and later as a member of a special commission of the parliament for examining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Bazrpash also quickly became a thorn in the side of the new presidential administration of Hassan Rouhani—targeting for potential impeachment members of his cabinet like then Economy Minister Ali Tayebnia over a law on banking and a report on taxes. Simultaneously, while a member of parliament, he still served as the publisher of Vatan-e Emrooz, which used its platform to attack Rouhani. For instance, in 2014, after the Joint Plan of Action between Iran and the P5+1 took effect, Vatan-e Emrooz’s front page was published in the mourning-like colors of black and white, complete with a headline saying that a “nuclear holocaust” had been committed.

Bazrpash served in parliament until 2016, after losing a bid for reelection. Soon after, Iranian media reports indicated he was on a list of 14 candidates from the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces for the 2017 presidential election. Bazrpash made it as far as winning a slot on the shortlist of five candidates for the 2017 election from the Popular Front, coming in third place after then head of Astan-e Quds Razavi Ebrahim Raisi and veteran legislator Alireza Zakani with 1,404 votes. In fact, Bazrpash received more votes than politically established figures like Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who had previously run for president. But Bazrpash never became a formal candidate in 2017. Instead, he spent time until 2020, using his perch atop Vatan-e Emrooz, which has also had financial issues, attacking the Rouhani administration and drawing distinctions, with an eye on his political future.

The Supreme Audit Court

After conservatives won a majority in Iran’s new parliament in 2020, Bazrpash sensed an opportunity to get back in the arena. In July 2020, he was elected by parliament as the new president of the Supreme Audit Court. His selection wasn’t without controversy, as some felt Bazrpash didn’t have the education and experience for the job. But in terms of his career, the move to the Supreme Audit Court made sense for three reasons. First is the mission of the court itself. It describes its role as giving “independent assurance to the parliament and the citizens about how [the] public budget has been spent in a given financial year.” The court does so “through undertaking audits, preparing annual audit reports and conducting prosecution and jurisdiction.” In recent months, its former president, Adel Azar, feuded with the Rouhani administration after alleging that $4.8 billion from the budget allocated for imports had disappeared. Thus, Bazrpash will be inheriting a platform from which he can continue attacking the Rouhani administration. At the same time, he may view this role as a way to rehabilitate his image after corruption scandals plagued him during the Ahmadinejad administration—by portraying himself as a monitor of public funds.

Another reason why the job was likely tempting for Bazrpash was the political trajectory of former presidents of the Supreme Audit Court. Two previous presidents went on to important administrative positions in the Islamic Republic. One, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, rose to become first vice president in the Ahmadinejad administration. Another, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli, was later elevated by Rouhani as interior minister. Bazrpash’s ambition would therefore be well-served in this post. Lastly, with the newly empowered conservative parliament viewing itself as a check on the Rouhani administration, Bazrpash’s association with this new wave of hardliners keeps him relevant with an official role ahead of the 2021 presidential election.

In the end, three elements have contributed to Bazrpash’s rise: boundless ambition; early promotion by Ahmadinejad; and holding multiple positions at once—for example simultaneously publishing a newspaper and occupying state offices. Such a combination has enabled him to punch above his weight. Bazrpash’s experience in both the executive and legislative branches, coupled with a stint as a deputy of the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation provide valuable regime connections as he seeks to advance in Tehran. Additionally, his falling out with Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei may also provide him with cover among conservatives who are distrustful of both men. Likewise, his biography as a martyr’s son who was born after the Islamic Revolution may help given Khamenei’s call for a “young and Hezbollah” government. But his association with the Basij and use of state positions for private gain will remain as obstacles for higher office ahead of 2021.

Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).