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Iranian Candidate Appears To Offer Starkly Contrasting Accounts Of Crackdown

Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf waves after registering his candidacy for the June presidential election.
Is Iran’s presidential hopeful Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf a hard-liner or a moderate? It depends on his audience, apparently.

Recordings of two starkly different accounts given by Qalibaf of his role in the crackdown against protests have emerged online.

One recording was allegedly made at a meeting Qalibaf is said to have held a few weeks ago with hard-line Basij students.

In it Qalibaf, Tehran's mayor and a former Revolutionary Guards air force commander, appears to take credit for cracking down on Iran’s student movement. He says he personally beat up students with batons in the 1999 crackdown in Tehran and obtained permission from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council to shoot at student protesters in 2003. The Basij forces in recent years have been accused of being actively involved in repressive measures against students.

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Yet, a few weeks later, in another meeting with students at Tehran’s Sharif University, Qalibaf had a very different account of the same 2003 event: He said he received the order to shoot at students but refused to do so.

Qalibaf's contradictory accounts appear to be part of an attempt to appeal to voters from different sides of the political spectrum as the June 14 presidential election approaches.

Burnish His Credentials

The 51-year-old Qalibaf is a member of the so-called Coalition of Three conservative presidential hopefuls loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Analysts say that by highlighting his role in the crackdown, Qalibaf is seeking to burnish his conservative credentials and win the approval of Khamenei and his powerful hard-line allies, who are believed to be more inclined to support nuclear negotiator Said Jalili in next month’s vote.
For the past 12 years he’s been trying to give the image of a kind, moderate leader, but indeed he is one of the leading agents of repression in Iran.
Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran
In his meeting with Basij students, Qalibaf allegedly talks about the crackdowns in 1999, 2003, and in 2009, after the last presidential election.

Of the 2003 student protests, Qalibaf, who was then national police chief, claimed that by making harsh statements and intimidating members of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, he managed to obtain permission to shoot at student protesters.

“In that meeting, through my behavior, I was able to get permission from the country’s security council for the police forces to have a military presence at the university dorm and shoot [at protesters],” he said.

But speaking on May 13 to students at Sharif University, one of the centers of student activism, Qalibaf said others had issued the shooting order, while he had refused to enforce it.

“I was the commander of the police forces during the events of 2003 that happened because of the anniversary of the 18 Tir incident (the 1999 student protests). Then, at a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, the reformists issued an order that the police force which I headed had the right to shoot and enter the university dormitory. But I didn’t do that,” he says.

Confident Of Authenticity

The transcript of Qalibaf’s alleged comments with Basij students was first released by the opposition website Kalame after Qalibaf accused the reformist government of then-President Mohammad Khatami of having issued the order to attack students in 2003.

Kalame reported that Qalibaf’s meeting with Basij members was held privately. The meeting with Sharif University students was public.

The apparent audio of Qalibaf’s meeting with Basij students was later released online by several sources, including the U.S.-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

Hadi Ghaemi, the campaign's executive director, told RFE/RL that his group is confident about the authenticity of the audio recording.

Ghaemi says the recording exposes Qalibaf as a violent politician. His group has called on the European Union and the United States to add Qalibaf to their list of sanctioned human rights violators.

"I think for the past 12 years he’s been trying to give the image of a kind, moderate leader, but indeed he is one of the leading agents of repression in Iran," Ghaemi says. "What he refers to in that tape is very clear. He even claims there are photographs of him committing those acts in the streets, beating up protesters. He even refers to people who can [verify this]."

'Not A Single Bullet'

Qalibaf has been silent about the controversy. But his campaign spokesman Parviz Esmaili told the semiofficial Mehr news agency that during Qalibaf’s tenure as national police chief “not a single bullet” was fired on university campuses. He accused Iran’s enemies of conducting a psychological war in the run-up to the election.

The recording in which Qalibaf claims he had a key role in state repression has led to anger on social media websites. Some say he showed his true face, while others say he is merely trying to please Khamenei, who has the last say in all state affairs in the Islamic republic.

“Mr. Qalibaf, flattering Khamenei will not take you far. Look at Ahmadinejad," wrote one user on Facebook, in a reference to the current Iranian president who fell out of favor with the supreme leader.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.