Ghalibaf was born in 1961 in the town of Tarbaqeh near Mashhad in today’s northeastern Khorasan-e Razavi Province. His first exposure to combat came after he joined the Basij paramilitary and deployed to fight in the brutal counterinsurgency against Kurdish rebels in the West. When the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, Ghalibaf joined the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), soon becoming one of its youngest commanders. At the age of 22 years old, he ascended to become commander of the IRGC’s Fifth Nasr Division, which led Operation Dawn, one of the Iranian human wave offensives in 1983. Multiple reports suggest that, as a part of these offensives, he personally ordered soldiers to sweep minefields with their bodies.
As one of the IRGC’s youngest commanders, he developed close ties with Ali Khamenei (who is also from Mashhad), Qassem Soleimani, Esmail Ghaani, Nour Ali Shoustari, and other future leaders of the IRGC. Scholar Ali Alfoneh noted that Khamenei often visited the Fifth Nasr Division during the Iran-Iraq War. Ghaani served as Ghalibaf’s deputy and was later his successor as the commander of the Fifth Nasr Division at the end of the war. These connections—particularly with Khamenei—would prove instrumental in his rise.
Ghalibaf’s ascension to the regime's top ranks coincided with Khamenei’s ascension as Supreme Leader in 1989. He became deputy commander of the Basij with Khamenei’s blessing. The Supreme Leader also appointed Ghalibaf to head the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia Construction Headquarters in 1994, and he served in that position for three years during the post-war reconstruction. In this period, the IRGC expanded its footprint in the Iranian economy. Later, Ghalibaf became the commander of the IRGC-Air Force from 1997-2000. During his tenure, he warned then-reformist President Mohammad Khatami that he would be removed from office if he did not act more aggressively against student protestors, in an infamous letter dated July 1999 that he signed onto alongside other IRGC commanders.
Afterward, the Supreme Leader appointed Ghalibaf chief of police or the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (LEF). Khamenei’s selection of Ghalibaf signaled his confidence that Ghalibaf would professionalize the LEF during a sensitive period in the Islamic Republic, as his predecessor Hedayat Lotfian was ousted following the student protests. It was also a check on then-President Khatami during his second term, as Ghalibaf was one of the original signatories to the aforementioned July 1999 public letter. A tape later emerged of Ghalibaf bragging to the Basij paramilitary about how he ordered police to fire at student demonstrators in 2003.
Afterward, the supreme leader appointed Ghalibaf chief of police or the Law Enforcement Force of the Islamic Republic of Iran (LEF). Khamenei’s selection of Ghalibaf signaled his confidence that Ghalibaf would professionalize the LEF during a sensitive period in the Islamic Republic, as his predecessor Hedayat Lotfian was ousted following the student protests. It was also a check on then-President Khatami during his second term, as Ghalibaf was one of the original signatories to the aforementioned July 1999 public letter. A tape later emerged of Ghalibaf bragging to the Basij paramilitary about how he ordered police to fire at student demonstrators in 2003.
Ghalibaf has shown ambition for the presidency several times but has thus far come up short. Yet, he has managed to acquire important positions like mayor of Tehran and parliament speaker. In recent years, he has been implicated and linked to a series of corruption scandals; his relationship and usefulness to powerful officials have shielded him from prosecution. Some call him “the most corrupt commander” in Iran.
After his tenure at the helm of the LEF, Ghalibaf entered Iran’s political scene, running and losing in the 2005 presidential race. After his loss, Ghalibaf became mayor of Tehran, viewing that as a platform to launch himself to president. He again embarked on a run for the presidency in 2013. Rouhani won 50.7 percent of the votes, and Ghalibaf came in second place with 16.6 percent.
Four years later, he again ran against Rouhani for president, but faced opposition from the principlist camp, in large part because of his public links to corruption. In the 2017 presidential debates, former President Hassan Rouhani claimed that Ghalibaf in 2005 struck a deal to set free some large smugglers of narcotics and fuel in exchange for helping his campaign; Rouhani at the time was at the Supreme National Security Council, but the file on Ghalibaf never proceeded. Ghalibaf withdrew from the election and endorsed Rouhani’s challenger Ebrahim Raisi. Ghalibaf flirted with running for the presidency in the 2021 elections again, but did not enter the race after Raisi announced his run.
Ghalibaf was voted into the office of mayor of Tehran in 2005 by the 31-member City Council, and he served in that capacity until 2017. His mayoral tenure was defined by infrastructural feats, with some of the most lucrative infrastructure contracts being awarded to his former engineering firm, the IRGC’s Khatam al-Anbia. He expanded the Tehran metro and the Sadr Expressway and established new green spaces within Tehran. However, some of these projects were ill-advised. The city spent a fortune on the Sadr Expressway, instead of building much-needed transportation infrastructure between the affluent north of the city and the city’s southern reaches. Urban planners say that the poorly-researched project, which costed the city $2.5 billion, made traffic worse. The artificial Chitgar lake in northwestern Tehran resulted in environmental degradation.
As infrastructure projects got underway, Ghalibaf turned to the international stage, with a cameo at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2008. There he sought to distance himself from then-President Ahmadinejad, claiming that the president’s anti-Westernism and isolationist policies were hampering foreign investment in Iran. In Davos, he pledged to open the country up to more foreign investment, and indicated he was flirting with another run for the presidency.
Ghalibaf’s 12-year tenure as mayor has been linked to a series of scandals and corruption. One of the most prominent cases was the municipality selling massive properties to several officials in the affluent northern Tehran at a heavy discount. In 2016, Memari News published a classified report prepared by the General Inspection Office on Ghalibaf’s corrupt property sales. The report found that the mayor had “illegally” sold “Tehran municipality’s residential, commercial, [and] public use property.” Strong public condemnation against Ghalibaf followed, and has not subsided to this day. Criticism mounted after he became speaker of Parliament, leading him to reportedly tender his resignation to the Supreme Leader, who would not let him resign. The Supreme Leader thought it would tarnish the regime’s reputation and weaken the legislative branch of government.
In 2017, a former council member accused Ghalibaf’s wife, Zahra Sadat-Moshir, in the property corruption scandal. Moshir’s charity was one among many beneficiaries; other Ghalibaf allies, including members of his team, former city councilor Morteza Talaei, and the IRGC’s Cooperative Foundation, also received property from the city at cut-rate prices. The IRGC was allegedly one of the main recipients of the properties, with many parcels of land going to the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization to expand its network of safe houses. Furthermore, during the 2009 post-election protests, Ghalibaf provided municipal facilities for those who suppressed the protests.
In February 2022, an audio recording of then-IRGC commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari and his economic affairs deputy further implicated Ghalibaf, along with former Quds Force chief Qasem Soleimani, in a conspiracy to transfer funds to the IRGC. The recording revealed that Ghalibaf, while mayor, sought to cover up a $2 billion embezzlement scheme. According to Jafari’s economic affairs deputy, Ghalibaf demanded that he sign a fraudulent memorandum on behalf of the IRGC with Tehran municipality to cover up the missing funds identified in an audit of the IRGC Cooperative Foundation, the main arm of which was Yas Holding. The recording showed that the deputy refused, but then-chief of the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization Hossein Taeb, who is close to the supreme leader, supported the plan. Soleimani reportedly knew about the financial crimes, which seemed to contradict the supreme leader’s order that 90 percent of Yas Holding’s earnings from real estate dealings should be transferred to the Quds Force.
Instead of resulting in an investigation into Ghalibaf, however, the audio file leak resulted in the arrest of Mohammad Ghaemi by the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization (IRGC-IO), after a complaint was made by Ghalibaf. At the time, the IRGC-IO was led by Hossein Taeb, a Ghalibaf supporter. Ghaemi was formerly in charge of liquidating Yas Holding after the firm was disbanded due to corruption allegations.
Political analysts differ over when the neoconservative movement—today championed by Ghalibaf—emerged from infighting within the conservative camp. Some say that the movement took root during the 2005 presidential election, which resulted in the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Others pin its origins to the 2013 presidential election, when Ghalibaf carved out his own political platform, distinct from the hardline conservatives. The latter analysts see Ghalibaf as the progenitor of this new movement, both opposed to the reformist position of former President Khatami, and critical of some revolutionary ideals.
Compared to hardline conservatives, such as former nuclear negotiator in the Ahmadinejad administration Saeed Jalili, who has reportedly advocated exiting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ramping up enrichment to 90% purity, Ghalibaf has taken a more moderate position on the 2015 Nuclear Deal. He left open the possibility of Iran rejoining the accord on the condition that western powers abide by their obligations, but at the same time he clearly supports driving a hardline in the negotiations. He said, for example, that no additional terms would be negotiated beyond the original scope of the deal. On other foreign policy issues, such as Financial Action Task Force (FATF) legislation, he tends to side with the more conservative position and oppose reformists. Compliance with FATF—an anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing intergovernmental body—would require the Islamic Republic to end its support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It could lead to better economic relations and a more modernized Iran, but has been a subject of considerable debate among reformists and principlists, with the latter camp opposed to any obstacles to terror financing. Most reformists, who previously had the backing of former President Rouhani, consider Iran’s blacklisted status by FATF to be a major impediment to improving Iran’s banking and financial ties with the West, however Ghalibaf has said that complying with FATF’s recommendations would be “to [Iran’s] detriment.”
In 2020, Ghalibaf won a seat in Parliament as Tehran’s representative, capitalizing on low voter turnout in Tehran and name recognition. Conservative parties dominated the 2020 parliamentary elections, while reformist parties fared poorly, owing in part to the fact that many of the latter were disqualified by the conservative Guardian Council. The conservative camp in Parliament was thereafter plagued by infighting in the run up to the vote for speaker. Such infighting cost them the presidency in 2013 and 2017, noted one political commentator. Nevertheless, a few months later, Ghalibaf won 230 out of the 267 votes cast by the 290 members of Parliament for speaker, despite frequent attacks against him for his involvement in corruption while mayor of Tehran.
How Ghalibaf managed to win the speakership in a landslide despite the fact that the main conservative factions—the traditional conservatives, the hardline Paydari Front, and the pro-Ahmadinejad factions—allied against him is not exactly clear. According to one pro-Ahmadinejad MP, the three allied blocs had 170 MPs out of 200 conservative MPs in the 290-member body. Ghalibaf was reportedly invited to join the alliance, which called itself the “Committee of Seven,” but did not show up, perhaps because it barred anyone with an intention of running for president in 2021 from a bid for the speakership.
The death of a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, at the hands of the Morality Police in September 2022 sparked nationwide protests that forced members of the Parliament to sharpen their positions on Iran’s Sharia law. The Iranian people have long chafed under the Islamic Republic’s heavy-handed imposition of Sharia law, including the mandate for all women to veil themselves publicly. Traditionally, reformist politicians advocated for limited freedoms. However, even more conservative figures like Ghalibaf have reportedly adopted reform-minded positions since Amini’s death, viewing some degree of compromise as necessary for preserving the Islamic Republic. According to hacked news stories from the IRGC-affiliated Fars News Agency, Ghalibaf even asked the Supreme Leader to consider reforms.
Ghalibaf’s public positions resemble his alleged private positions. Given that Ghalibaf is not fully committed to the hardline conservative camp, his public criticism of the Morality Police’s strict enforcement of the mandatory hijab in the context of a spreading anti-regime protest movement should be no surprise. He has also criticized the IRGC’s extensive role in the economy to assuage popular discontent with government corruption and mismanagement. He implied that the IRGC is an obstacle blocking the proper functioning of the Iranian economy. Ghalibaf’s calls for economic reforms have also focused on the bonyads, which breed corruption and mismanagement.
Before his May 2023 reelection to the speakership, however, Ghalibaf showed his true colors, saying, “We need new governance based on the second step of the Revolution,” referring to Khamenei’s widely-reported speech titled “the Second Phase of the Revolution.” Ghalibaf appears to be trying to appeal to the reformists camp by calling for new governance, while showing no daylight between him and the Supreme Leader. Ghalibaf was reelected as speaker of the Parliament for the fourth consecutive term, with 210 votes out of 290 members.
Even though Ghalibaf enjoys broad-based support within the Parliament, he will continue to face pushback from the hardline Paydari Front, which campaigned against him for the speakership. The Paydari Front’s opposition against Ghalibaf stems from his ambition to become president of Iran and possibly take the place of Raisi. The Paydari Front, loyal to Raisi, wishes to undermine his presidential prospects while looking to secure a second term for Raisi.
Ghalibaf’s lackluster performance as speaker will threaten support for his initiatives going forward. It remains to be seen whether pressure from outside Parliament will help him advance his policy agenda. The Supreme Leader’s preferences can often sway critical votes in the Parliament for the speakership and important legislation. When Khamenei, for example, signaled his preference against Parliament’s impeachment motion against Raisi's cabinet members, the motion was dismissed. The Supreme Leader controls the field of eligible candidates running for parliamentary seats and exercises informal influence behind the legislature and the speaker. He has significantly eroded the Parliament’s authority over the years.
Ghalibaf has differentiated himself from hardline principlists, but still falls firmly within their camp. His close ties with the IRGC and the Supreme Leader affirm his credentials as a regime insider. Not only did Supreme Leader Khamenei play an integral role in Ghalibaf’s military career, but also in his subsequent political rise, as he supported Ghalibaf’s run for mayor of Tehran and speaker of Parliament. The Supreme Leader (along with the IRGC) may also be shielding Ghalibaf from prosecution for his corrupt dealings while mayor of Tehran. He is a unique figure within the Iranian system because he recognizes (and sometimes publicly conveys) the economic and geopolitical costs of the mullahs’ hardline anti-Westernism and isolationism. Nevertheless, he remains a long-standing fixture in the Iranian regime, with close ties to the IRGC and Supreme Leader.
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