The Man Who Says Iran Does Need Nuclear Weapons

If Iran's supreme leader decides that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is causing too much damage, he could turn to Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.

In its shifting assessments, Israeli intelligence determined that 2011 could be the decisive year for Iran's nuclear program, because in this year Iran might assemble its first nuclear bomb. This is also the year in which the two central figures who are meant to be dealing with the matter will be taking up their posts: new Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and incoming Israel Defense Forces chief of staff General Yoav Galant.

The two men will carry on the policy of their predecessors, Meir Dagan and Gabi Ashkenazi, respectively. Their policy was well thought out, and involved delaying, disrupting and undermining Iran in its race to master nuclear technology. It's a policy that notched up quite a few successes. A lethal worm damaged the nuclear program's computers, unknown hands sold faulty equipment that put some 50 percent of Iran's uranium-enriching centrifuges out of operation, and several senior officials and scientists defected to the West or were mysteriously assassinated.

Like Dagan and Ashkenazi, Pardo and Galant also understand the constraints of Israeli power, and know that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be incredibly dangerous.

Thus, most probably, Iran's nuclear program will be suspended only if Iran's leaders themselves decide to do so, and the chances of this are very slim. Such a decision can be made in Tehran only if Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei concludes that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conduct is seriously damaging the country's economy and diplomacy, and is causing anger domestically.

Ghalibaf - AFP
Ghalibaf electoral banner, Teheran, 2005.AFP

The person who can contribute to such a shift is Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, who poses a challenge and a counterforce to Ahmadinejad. After Ahmadinejad fired his rival and opponent Manouchehr Mottaki from the post of foreign minister last week, political analysts think the president now has Ghalibaf in his sights.

Ghalibaf was born in 1962 in Kurdish Iran to a father of Kurdish origin and a Persian mother. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979 he joined the Revolutionary Guards, distinguished himself in the war against Iraq, and at age 24 was promoted to the rank of general and put in charge of a division. Two years later he was appointed commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force. Iranian websites cite an anecdote supposedly told by Ghalibaf about his family's reaction to his appointment. His son mocked: Dad, how can you command the air force if you don't know how to fly? The father replied: Don't worry son, within a short while I will learn to fly and I will fly jumbo jets. And so it was: Ghalibaf frequently is seen in public sporting pilot's wings.

In the early 1990s, Khamenei appointed him Iran's police chief. He was viewed as a an extreme conservative, and when student riots erupted in 1992, he wrote a letter to Khamenei demanding that the protests be put down with brute force. The police ultimately dealt with that protest and others, including those in 2003, with relative moderation. Ghalibaf could take pride that the protests subsided without violence. He also likes to boast that he opened up the police ranks to women, and placed an emphasis on treating civilians in a "friendlier" manner. (The police were less friendly during the violent riots that followed the 2009 presidential election. Most of the dirty work was done by the Basij, the popular militia of which Ghalibaf was deputy commander in the 1980s, but the Tehran police were also heavy-handed in dispersing the demonstrators claiming election fraud. )

In 2005 Ghalibaf resigned from the police and the security forces, and submitted his candidacy for president, backed by conservative circles. Opinion polls gave him 20 percent of the vote. In private conversations, Ghalibaf maintained that he was Khamenei's favored candidate, but at the last minute the supreme leader decided to endorse Tehran mayor Ahmadinejad, a relative unknown at the time.

Ghalibaf replaced Ahmadinejad as Tehran's mayor. In his first year as president, Ahmadinejad sought to distance Ghalibaf from Iran's power centers, and offered him an ambassadorship. Ghalibaf turned it down.

Over the past few years, in order to undermine his rival and weaken his political power, Ahmadinejad has held back funds from Tehran. Despite this, Ghalibaf is considered a relatively successful mayor in this unmanageable city of 14 million, where traffic jams are constant, air pollution is among the worst in the world, and laborers are constantly arriving as migrants from the villages. In his five years at the helm, Tehran has seen bridges built and roads paved.

Ghalibaf appears to have moderated his worldview in recent years, likely in the face of Ahmadinejad's radical rhetoric. In 2008 he attended the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he gave a fairly rare interview to The New York Times. He said that Iran is not seeking to obtain nuclear weapons. He tried to explain that Iran is not a threat to any country: "If Iran needs to defend itself, it can use conventional weapons to resist any attack. We don't need any atomic weapons or unconventional weapons. In our Islamic belief, these kinds of things are forbidden." He also said that he believes in greater openness.

In 2011, considering Khamenei's deteriorating health, it is quite possible that forces within the conservative camp - the Revolutionary Guards, the religious establishment, the middle class, the tradesmen, the students - that oppose Ahmadinejad but dislike the opposition, will turn to Ghalibaf in their hope for change. Though in the suspicious milieu of Iranian politics and the tendency among Iranians to embrace conspiracy theories, a piece by an Israeli journalist can be wrongly interpreted and may very well do a disservice to Mr. Ghalibaf.