Iran’s new speaker of parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, has endeavored for years to ascend to the top ranks of the regime. As a former senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as well as a longtime mayor of Tehran, Ghalibaf has repeatedly attempted to leverage this revolutionary and technocratic pedigree to achieve political success in Iran’s elected state. His ascension to the speakership represents the culmination of those efforts. But beyond his personal ambition, Ghalibaf has the potential to become a consequential speaker.
The Speaker as Kingmaker
While parliament has limited authority in the Islamic Republic, there have been powerful speakers. One was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose power stemmed from his closeness to Iran’s first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rafsanjani also simultaneously served as acting commander-in-chief and speaker towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Ali Larijani was another heavyweight, protecting hardline and pragmatic presidents alike when the interests of the system outweighed factional infighting. For instance, he prevented the 2011 impeachment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s minister of economic affairs and finance, Shamseddin Hosseini, chiding legislators for creating the conditions “to increase the cost of running the country.” On the other hand, Larijani also ran legislative interference for President Hassan Rouhani, paving the way for his legislation endorsing elements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) action plan.
But the new speaker of parliament could seek to make the last months of the Rouhani administration difficult. Ghalibaf has bad blood with Rouhani personally. Back in 2017, when the two were presidential candidates, Ghalibaf led a campaign of public allegations against Rouhani and his Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, who also ran for the office. In one of the presidential debates, Ghalibaf went as far as revealing that Rouhani and Jahangiri bought land at drastically reduced prices in the 1980s, and exposed a document proving it on live TV. Rouhani responded immediately and claimed that back in 2005, he had a file on Ghalibaf that could have ruined his career, yet he had refrained from publishing it. “If I had not prevented disclosure,” Rouhani said, “you would not be sitting here.” Such an incident leaves marks.
Ghalibaf withdrew from the 2017 presidential contest but endorsed Rouhani’s conservative challenger Ebrahim Raisi, who later became chief justice. With Raisi and Ghalibaf now controlling two of three branches of government, they could collaborate to stymie Rouhani administration ministers and priorities. This is particularly true given both officials’ roles on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and the Supreme Economic Coordination Council, which has circumvented parliamentary prerogatives, most recently greenlighting the Islamic Republic’s new gas policy. That’s not to mention that Raisi has his own connections to Ghalibaf’s leadership team in parliament. Ali Nikzad, who serves as the second vice-speaker of parliament, is Raisi’s former presidential campaign manager. It’s this toxic relationship and network which could cause trouble for Rouhani.
The Guardsmen Have Arrived
As a former commander of the IRGC’s Khatami al-Anbia Construction Headquarters and Air Force, Ghalibaf is arguably the most politically successful alumnus of the IRGC’s top brass since 1979. Over the years, former guardsmen entered parliament as legislators, became cabinet ministers, and senior appointees of Iran’s supreme leader. In fact, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani became president and speaker of parliament, respectively, after stints in the IRGC. However, they were more junior operatives. Ahmadinejad served in the Basij and Larijani was a deputy minister and deputy chief of staff. Ghalibaf is in a different league, having presided over multiple organs of the IRGC. Thus, the breadth and depth of his status within Iran’s Praetorian Guard is unprecedented at the helms of the executive and legislative branches.
But Ghalibaf isn’t alone among guardsmen in his yearning for control over Iran’s elected state. Mohsen Rezaei, the former commander-in-chief of the IRGC, lost a race for parliament and unsuccessfully ran three times for the presidency. Ali Shamkhani, the current secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and a former commander of the IRGC’s Navy, was also defeated in a 2001 bid to become Iran’s chief executive after deciding to run in order to demonstrate that a “military man” could be successful in Iranian politics. Ghalibaf has potentially changed the political equation for senior commanders of the IRGC by reversing this losing streak. He will be supported by a parliament, where close to two-thirds of its presidium are IRGC and Basij members, according to an estimate by Radio Farda.
In a republic in which decisionmaking processes are heavily based on consultations and discussions before taking any decision, the speaker of parliament’s seat on the SNSC will also increase the IRGC’s influence. Ghalibaf, having more of a connection to the IRGC than Larijani, will now be joining Shamkhani, the current commander-in-chief of the IRGC Hossein Salami, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Mohammad Bagheri, and the Supreme Leader’s representative to the SNSC, Saed Jalili—who all have an IRGC pedigree—at the SNSC. Such a lineup has the potential to change the national security decisional dynamic.
The Nuclear Deal
Perhaps one of the most acute points of contention that Ghalibaf and Rouhani will share is the strategy vis-a-vis the nuclear deal and the West. Ghalibaf’s predecessor Larijani was an ally of Rouhani in parliament on the nuclear deal, and although they did not share the same ideological point of view, Larijani helped Rouhani to contain some of the criticism about negotiations.
Ghalibaf laid the ground for the new parliament’s approach in his first speech, declaring that “negotiations and compromise with the U.S. are futile and harmful.” Instead, he promised the new parliament regards the fight against America as an “ideological cause” and a “strategic interest,” and vowed that Iran’s strategy will avenge the death of Soleimani. Ghalibaf’s first vice-speaker in parliament, Amir-Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi, holds even extremer positions concerning the issue and advocated in January that Iran should withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if its nuclear case is sent to the UN Security Council. Previously, in 2019, Ghazizadeh had called INSTEX (the European mechanism established to facilitate trade with Iran) a “disgrace,” and had said it undermined Iran’s independence.
Parliament has many tricks to make Rouhani’s life hard. For example, it could recommence with impeaching his top ministers, including Foreign Minister Mohammad-Javad Zarif, who was already threatened by the previous parliament with impeachment. Notably, it was Ghazizadeh Hashemi who was one of the advocates for such an impeachment, even calling to file a court case against Iran’s top diplomat.
Thus, the table has been set for Ghalibaf to have an expansive and explosive role as a speaker. His personal power, as well as the IRGC’s influence, will be on full display. With rumors that he wants to use the speakership as a platform to run for the presidency in 2021, and given speculation that former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi may also join the race, expect more turbulence in the months ahead.
Jason M. Brodsky is the policy director of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). He is on Twitter @JasonMBrodsky.
Omer Carmi is vice president of intelligence at Sixgill. Previously, he was a visiting fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and led analytical and research efforts in the Israel Defense Forces. He is on Twitter @CarmiOmer.