Speaker’s scandals haunt Iranian leadership
A tidal wave of popular discontent has swept over the Iranian street in reaction to last month’s display of outrageous extravagance by Parliament Speaker Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf’s family during a trip to Turkey. Photos and video footage showing Ghalibaf’s wife, daughter and son-in-law trying to bring back a large quantity of excess baggage crammed with ultra-expensive luxury designer goods on their flight home went viral.
Airport officials only allowed them to take the sizable quantity of luxury goods aboard when they discovered they were VIP passengers with links to Ghalibaf. According to former Deputy Speaker Ayman Abadi, Ghalibaf has also purchased two apartments in Turkey, whose ownership is officially registered under the name of his son-in-law, Mohammed Reza Bahiraei.
The incident involving Ghalibaf’s family is not the first of its kind and it will not be the last. Iran’s political elites live an extravagant lifestyle, in stark contrast to the difficulties endured by the Iranian people. These elites exploit the state’s resources, enjoy apparently limitless power and live a life of opulence that is so far removed from the lives of ordinary Iranians that it is reminiscent of the monarchical era before the 1979 revolution.
Moreover, the children of the powerful clerics who preach austerity and self-denial live lives of vast affluence and wastefulness, showing off their luxurious lifestyles on the “Rich Kids of Tehran” Instagram account — once again underlining the stark contrast between the regime’s public rhetoric of frugality and self-sacrifice aimed at quelling the people’s anger and heading off any possible revolt and the actual behavior of Iran’s elites. This increasingly glaring disparity harms the regime’s credibility, as well as undermining Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s claims of upholding the principles of the revolutionary ideology he professes to represent.
This latest incident has dealt another severe blow to the core of the revolutionary principles claimed by the regime, further diminishing its already tarnished reputation domestically. The extravagance of the parliament speaker’s family has once again exposed the flagrant lie of the so-called resistance economy that the regime sells to the Iranian people to justify their suffering, with external factors blamed for their plight rather than poor policies, corruption and mismanagement.
Iran’s politico-religious figures — especially elected figures like Ghalibaf — should be the vanguards of the country’s resistance economy, demonstrating the prudence and moderation expected of ordinary Iranians. Instead, they are enjoying vast wealth and living lives of extravagance while the Iranian people suffer from worsening socioeconomic conditions, with their hopes, dreams and aspirations growing ever more distant by the day.
The airport incident, while not unusual, came at a time when everyday life for ordinary Iranians has become a struggle amid increasingly unbearable economic circumstances. While displays of wanton extravagance by regime officials would provoke public anger under normal circumstances, the outrage generated now is far greater as the majority of the Iranian people are suffering tragic socioeconomic conditions.
As poverty rates continue to rise, affecting millions, we can rightly say that the Iranian regime’s failed policies of recent years have widened and deepened the segment of dissatisfied poor and low-income people. This lamentable reality is demonstrated by the woeful economic figures recently disclosed by a number of Iranian officials, which revealed that half the country’s population lives below the poverty line — 40 million citizens are currently in need of immediate assistance and 35 million have no fixed income. The number of citizens categorized as destitute has surged to nearly 30 million.
These catastrophic economic conditions are having equally tragic social impacts, with divorce rates increasing, along with embezzlement and bribery. Suicide rates are also rising, while a sense of hopelessness — along with the regime’s repressive policies and corruption — has driven many Iranians to seek asylum abroad or to emigrate.
For his part, Ghalibaf has shrugged off the widespread criticisms of his family’s extravagance. Members of the hard-liner current with which he is affiliated have also rushed to defend him, reflecting the regime’s efforts to protect its own and justify the disgraceful behavior of the family of one of its most senior officials.
These attempted justifications are ludicrous, with some arguing that, since the overseas spending spree by Ghalibaf’s family is unconnected to his duties as parliament speaker, it should not be subject to criticism. This line of argument has not convinced most ordinary Iranians, who have expressed their outrage at such extravagance. Other Ghalibaf supporters have resorted to a conspiracy theory to justify or ignore his family’s extravagance, asserting that the incident was a plot by political and security authorities to undermine Ghalibaf’s political standing. It seems clear that the purpose of such attempted justifications — which also encourage others to indulge in similar extravagance — is to downplay the incident and shut the door on any potential investigation.
Iran’s political elites live an extravagant lifestyle, in stark contrast to the difficulties endured by the Iranian people.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Ghalibaf is also accused of being involved in economic corruption cases, including the sale and purchase of astronomically expensive luxury properties and the illegal sale of more than 2,000 buildings to favored contacts while he was the mayor of Tehran from 2005 to 2017. The political and legal protection provided by the supreme leader to those close to him has successfully thwarted all attempts to try or convict Ghalibaf. This support continues to the present day. Following the strong condemnation of the parliament speaker, high-level sources said he had tendered his resignation to Khamenei, who rejected it.
Even when Ghalibaf wanted to offer an official apology to the Iranian people as a means of muting the criticism, Mohammed Golpayegani, the supreme leader’s chief of staff, reportedly prevented him from doing so out of fear it would tarnish the regime’s reputation and weaken its three branches of power. It seems like Iranian officials apologizing for their involvement in corruption scandals poses a greater danger to the regime than the act of corruption itself.
The prevalent impression on the Iranian street is that all of Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi’s talk about fighting corruption is wholly insincere; they are simply providing cover for political score-settling, while only punishing those officials who demonstrate disobedience to the regime’s leadership.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is president of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami