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Iran’s hard-line parliament speaker emerges as the theocracy’s top figure in the presidential vote

Iran's hard-line parliament speaker, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf waves to the media.
Iran’s hard-line parliament speaker, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, waves to the media while registering his name as candidate for the June 28 presidential election in Tehran on Monday. Monday marked the last day of registration for the competition.
(Vahid Salemi / Associated Press)
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Iran’s hard-line parliament speaker emerged on Monday as the most prominent candidate from within the country’s Shiite theocracy in the race for the June 28 presidential election to replace the late Ebrahim Raisi, killed in a helicopter crash last month.

The entry of Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with close ties to the country’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, catapulted him to the front of the bevy of candidates, just a day after hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also registered his bid for the presidency.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a speech earlier Monday, alluding to qualities that Qalibaf himself has highlighted and potentially signaling his support for the speaker.

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However, many know Qalibaf who as a former Revolutionary Guard general was part of a violent crackdown on Iranian university students in 1999. He also reportedly ordered live gunfire to be used against students in 2003, while serving as the country’s police chief.

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Those events could play into an election that follows years of unrest gripping Iran, both over its ailing economy and the mass protests sparked by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who died after being arrested for allegedly not wearing her headscarf, or hijab, to the liking of security forces.

The election also comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program, its arming of Russia in that country’s war on Ukraine and its wide-reaching crackdowns on dissent.

Meanwhile, Iran’s support of militia proxy forces throughout the wider Middle East have been increasingly in the spotlight as Yemen’s Houthi rebels attack ships in the Red Sea over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip.

Qalibaf, 62, registered his candidacy with the Interior Ministry in front of a crowd of journalists Monday. Speaking later to the media, he said he would continue on the same path as Raisi and the late Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a figure revered by many in Iran after his 2020 killing in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

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Qalibaf insisted he would not allow “another round of mismanagement” to happen in the country and mentioned poverty and price pressures affecting Iranians as the country strains under international sanctions.

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“If I didn’t register, the work we have started for resolving economic issues of the people in the popular government (of Raisi) and the revolutionary parliament, and is now at the stage of fruition, would remain unfinished,” Qalibaf said.

He did not elaborate and it remains unclear what those plans actually would entail as Iran’s currency, the rial, continues to spiral and again nears 600,000 to the dollar. The currency was trading at 32,000 rials to the dollar when Tehran signed the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.

Like other candidates, Qalibaf stayed away from directly discussing the tattered nuclear deal — or the recent comments by officials that Iran potentially could seek the atomic bomb. Such matters of state remain the final decision of Khamenei, 85, but presidents in the past have leaned either toward engagement or confrontation with the West over it.

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Along with Ahmadinejad, another former parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, and former Iranian Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who also ran in 2021, have also registered for the June balloting. Eshaq Jahangiri, a former vice president under moderate President Hassan Rouhani whose administration reached the nuclear deal, has also registered for the race.

Acting President Mohammad Mokhber, who took over after Raisi’s death, apparently did not register despite being seen with Khamenei in recent major meetings. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said “about 80” hopefuls registered during the five-day registration period.

A 12-member Guardian Council, a panel of clerics and jurists ultimately overseen by Khamenei, will decide on a final candidate list by June 12.

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The panel has never accepted a woman or anyone calling for radical change to the country’s governance. Ahmadinejad, who increasingly challenged Khamenei toward the end of his term and is remembered for the bloody crackdown on the 2009 Green Movement protests, found himself disqualified in the last election by the panel.

The helicopter that crashed Sunday in a remote, mountainous region was carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

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Qalibaf ran unsuccessfully for president in 2005 and 2013. He withdrew from the 2017 presidential campaign to support Raisi in his first failed presidential bid. Raisi won the 2021 election, which had the lowest turnout ever in a presidential vote in Iran, after every major opponent found themselves disqualified.

A trained pilot, Qalibaf served in the paramilitary Guard during the country’s bloody war with Iraq in the 1980s. After the conflict, he served as the head of the Guard’s construction arm, Khatam al-Anbia, for several years leading efforts to rebuild the country.

Qalibaf then served as the head of the Guard’s air force, and in 1999, he co-signed a letter to reformist President Mohammad Khatami amid student protests in Tehran over the government’s closing of a reformist newspaper and a subsequent security force crackdown. The letter warned Khatami that the Guard would take action unilaterally unless he agreed to put down the demonstrations.

Violence around the protests saw several people killed, hundreds wounded and thousands arrested.

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Qalibaf then served as the head of Iran’s police, modernizing the force and implementing the country’s 110 emergency phone number. But a leaked recording of a later meeting between Qalibaf and members of the Guard’s volunteer Basij force included him claiming that he had ordered the use of gunfire against demonstrators in 2003, as well as praising the violence used against the 2009 protests.

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In comments Monday morning before Qalibaf registered, Khamenei told an audience that Iran needed a president who was ”active, hardworking, attentive and loyal to the basics” of 1979 Islamic Revolution — a statement that Qalibaf later echoed.

“Concerns about the future of the country was a reason that the elites and entrepreneurs invited me to run in the election,” Qalibaf said. “Who else can take responsibility for finishing jobs in this situation?”

Gambrell writes for the Associated Press. AP writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.

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