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Ghalibaf brings years of corrupt leadership to Iran's Majles

By Behrouz Laregani

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Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf was elected speaker of Iran's parliament in May 2020. [Photo via IRNA]

Allegations of financial corruption have followed Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, the newly-elected speaker of Iran's Majles (parliament), throughout his military and political career, observers told Diyaruna.

But the former Tehran mayor and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) general, elected for a one-year term at the end of May, has still managed to rise, and enjoys the staunch support of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The prominent politician's main claim to fame is serving as Tehran's mayor for 12 years, from 2005 to 2017. He also has been a member of the Expediency Council since 2017, appointed by Khamenei.

Before his tenure as Tehran mayor, Ghalibaf served in various sensitive positions, most significantly as head of the IRGC's main financing arm, Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, in the late 1980s.

Ghalibaf has been accused of financial corruption a few times over the last decades. But the cases have been dismissed without being investigated, with observers attributing this to his relationship with Khamenei.

Real estate scandal as mayor

In September 2016, the Iranian newspaper Shargh and other media outlets reported that Ghalibaf had arranged for the discounted sale of some 100,000 square metres of municipal land to a select group of city council members.

The plots were reportedly sold at a 50% discount.

The same year, the now-defunct independent Iranian architecture website Memari News gained access to and published a classified report prepared by the General Inspection Office regarding Ghalibaf's corruption.

The report pointed to "the illegal nature of vesting and selling Tehran municipality's residential, commercial, or public use property".

But instead of Ghalibaf, Yashar Soltani, the website's managing editor, was detained on charges of publishing a classified report.

Ghalibaf's successor, Mohammad-Ali Najafi, accused municipality officials under Ghalibaf of drawing up illegal contracts.

According to Abdollah Paki, a municipal accountant, the city incurred losses of at least 2,200 billion toman ($525 million at the time) as a result of the sale of discounted land under Ghalibaf.

There was another corruption case while Ghalibaf was mayor, Paki told Diyaruna.

Paki said Ghalibaf hired some 13,000 people on the eve of the 2017 presidential elections for administrative work -- a move widely considered unnecessary and unjustified -- that cost the Tehran municipality hundreds of billions of toman.

Ghalibaf left the municipality 50,000 billion toman in debt at the end of his tenure.

Opacity at Khatam-al Anbiya

Ghalibaf was the first commander of the IRGC's Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, established under Khamenei's order. The base is one of the country's largest and most influential engineering and industrial contractors.

Over the last 20 years, economist Ahmad Tavakolabadi told Diyaruna, major government contracts have been awarded to Khatam-al Anbiya without formalities or regulations. According to him, these contracts include:

  • Development of the 15th and 16th phases of South Pars oil field, worth $2.5 billion
  • Construction of Asaluyeh Gas Pipeline to Iranshahr, worth $2 billion
  • Construction of docks on Iranian ports (with no allotted ceiling)
  • Construction of Mashhad-Sarakhs railway
  • Planning the construction of four oil tanks, each at a million-barrel capacity, as well as butane and propane tanks on Kharg Island
  • Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline, worth $2 billion

Neither Khatam-al Anbiya nor the Iranian government have ever published the end result of these projects, observers and media outlets said, and it is also unclear as to whether any completed projects met standards and expectations.

Lack of financial transparency

Khatam-al Anbiya and its affiliates take on projects related to road construction, dam building and oil and gas pipelines.

It does not entertain contracts worth less than 100 billion toman, although Tavakolabadi notes that its affiliates never publish financial reports.

In 2010, the US and the UN sanctioned Khatam-al Anbiya and its affiliated companies for their support of the IRGC's illicit activities, including the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism.

The base also had failed to comply with previous UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to Iran's nuclear programme.

After the National Iranian Oil Company and Astan Quds Razavi, Khatam-al Anbiya is Iran's largest centralised economic powerhouse. It has more than 800 commercial enterprises operating in and out of Iran, mainly in the region.

Observers noted that a lack of financial transparency can be a red flag for corruption.

Under Ghalibaf's leadership, Khatam-al Anbiya and the Tehran municipality both suffered from a lack of transparency, they said. Whether he will continue with this opaque style of leadership in Iran's parliament remains to be seen.

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