Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, 51, is the youngest candidate running for president of Iran. Saeed Jalili, who is 47, is the youngest.
TEHRAN In Iran’s first presidential debate of 2013 last week, candidate and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf looked poised and prepared. While the other seven candidates were visibly flustered by the format, Ghalibaf regularly consulted a tablet that appeared to be an Apple iPad and spoke with certainty to the cameras.
“The first thing that my government will do is to stabilize the currency. The second is to change the method of distribution of services and goods,” Ghalibaf said, referring to some of the most pressing problems of Iran’s battered economy. “Today we need the trust of our people. My government will achieve this in six months.”
If polls are any guide — and in Iran, they are far from reliable — Ghalibaf might have reason to exude confidence. Less than two weeks before Iranians vote, several online surveys conducted by Iranian news Web sites place the technocrat as a top contender in the field of eight conservative candidates vying to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This week, 150 members out of 290 in Iran’s parliament signed a letter officially endorsing him.
Ghalibaf is viewed warily by some of Iran’s political conservatives and clerical rulers, who view him as being more focused on pragmatism than revolutionary ideals. But there are few signs that he would make bold diplomatic shifts or decisions about Iran’s nuclear program if elected.
On Saturday, on a state-run television network directed at Iranians abroad, Ghalibaf said: “The president alone cannot decide foreign policy, as it is the sum of systemwide [decisions]. Our supreme leader and other branches have a say in this. So foreign policy does not change much with the change of president.”
As the only candidate with real executive experience and demonstrable accountability to the public, Ghalibaf, 51, is making a strong case that he has what it takes to be the Islamic Republic’s chief executive. Working in his favor are a solid military background and a highly praised record as mayor of Iran’s sprawling capital of more than 12 million people.
By the time Ghalibaf was 19, he was a commander on the front lines of Iran’s war with Iraq. He rose to the rank of major general before ultimately being named the commander of Iran’s air force, a division of the Revolutionary Guard. In 1999, Ghalibaf was named head of Iran’s police forces, a position he held until he succeeded Ahmadinejad as Tehran mayor in 2005.
In recent years, Ghalibaf has also distinguished himself from other Iranian politicians by mostly avoiding rivalries and instead focusing on addressing the myriad problems of the dilapidated city he inherited.
Under Ghalibaf, the perennially traffic-choked and polluted capital’s landscape was transformed through massive tree planting and green-space campaigns. Bridges were built and city rail lines were extended. Many Tehran residents laud him as a rare Iranian official capable of getting results, and he has won international praise for urban management and been shortlisted for several international mayoral awards.
“Everywhere in Tehran you go, you see beautiful and clean parks, sports and exercise facilities, cultural centers and cinemas,” said Naser Niazi, a 65-year-old retiree who said he plans to vote for Ghalibaf. “These things reduce the difficulties of living in this big city.”
Ghalibaf entered this year’s presidential race as part of a coalition of three conservative candidates who pledged to step aside in support of the one candidate who appeared to have the best chance at getting elected. That alliance has apparently disbanded, and all three men are still in the race.
But Ghalibaf’s popularity among middle-class Iranians and his perceived political independence could work against him. He would need the support of other members of Iran’s conservative political establishment, some of whom say he is willing to abandon revolutionary ideals to modernize Iran.
“They do not trust what they identify as his technocratic attributes,” said Farideh Farhi, an Iran analyst on the political science faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
But Ghalibaf is not just a wonk. With many years in law enforcement, he also has a history of doing what he deems necessary to maintain order, and critics say that has included the use of excessive violence in suppressing the biggest protests of the Islamic Republic’s 34-year history.
In a recording that surfaced last month, Ghalibaf can be heard giving a speech to members of the Basij, a state-funded paramilitary group often enlisted to provide assistance to police in times of domestic tension or unrest. In it, Ghalibaf allegedly takes pride in his role in cracking down on protesters in Tehran in 1999 and 2003, and he acknowledges being a key player in the security forces’ violent crackdown against post-election protests in 2009.
“I was on the street to clean up the streets. When it was necessary to beat people with a stick, we would. We were part of the group that beat people. And I am proud of it,” he said of 1999 protests at Tehran University.
Ghalibaf’s campaign spokesman dismissed the recording, released by the BBC Persian service, as a doctored attempt by foreign media to derail his candidacy. Ghalibaf’s campaign staff declined to answer questions for this report.
Ghalibaf’s most glaring deficiency may prove to be his lack of foreign policy experience, however. Of the eight candidates, his stiffest competition comes from a former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati; a longtime lead nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rouhani; and the current nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
“He’s not presidential material,” said Reza Shirazi, 38, a network technician from Tehran who said he approved of Ghalibaf’s work as mayor but would not vote for him as president.
“We need a president who knows the alphabet of foreign policy and has experience in it, because our current economic problems are a result of our international political problems,” he said, referring to sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program.