Mohammed-Baqer Qalibaf, mayor of Tehran, likes to be hands-on. On a recent morning, he strode into the citizens' complaint center he set up at city hall and took some calls. Qalibaf handled a bureaucratic delay in the issuing of a building permit, displaying the commitment to accountability that has many of the capital's residents praising him. "We had the worst snow this year, and Qalibaf had it cleared in one day," says Mohsen Rejai, a company clerk. "That's the kind of mayor we need."
Being mayor of Tehran may not be the summit of Qalibaf's political ambitions. Iran is buzzing with speculation that he will mount a challenge to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in next year's elections. The hard-line incumbent looks vulnerable because of domestic woes, including high inflation and unemployment, and an international environment in which Iran's relations with the West are at their most strained since the 1979 revolution. Qalibaf won't be the only challenger — others may include Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, a former national security chief, and ex-Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel — but Qalibaf, a conservative, came in a respectable fourth in the 2005 presidential election, which makes many think he has the best chance to unseat Ahmadinejad.
Qalibaf's true colors aren't clear. Relatively young, at 46, for Iranian politics, he is neither a turbaned mullah nor a bearded revolutionary but a manager who seems more interested in paving potholed streets than in parroting empty slogans. The son of a grocer in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Qalibaf was a teenage activist during the 1979 Islamic revolution. A few years later he became one of Iran's youngest military commanders, playing a crucial role in the 1982 liberation of the city of Khorramshahr from Saddam Hussein's invading army, and he subsequently served as Iran's chief of police.
The mayor is known for being critical of Ahmadinejad. The government, Qalibaf says, has missed a "golden opportunity" to leverage skyrocketing oil prices into reform of the heavily state-controlled economy. He defends Iran's nuclear program, denying that it is designed for military purposes, but hints that Ahmadinejad's provocative foreign-policy pronouncements have not furthered Iran's aims. "One can talk to the world in much better ways," he says. In June, President Bush won consideration from European leaders for tougher sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium-enrichment activities. Ahmadinejad scoffed, "The enemy cannot do anything. All their plans have failed." The same month, Ahmadinejad's government shut down Tehran Emrooz, a paper supporting Qalibaf, after it published a series of articles sharply critical of the president's policies.
Qalibaf's relatively hip appearance and smiling persona seem part of an effort to craft an image that appeals to Iran's youthful electorate. "The majority of our people are tired of extremisms and exaggerations of the rightist and leftist factions," Qalibaf told TIME. "The world is going through constant change. Just because we've had an Islamic revolution doesn't mean we don't learn from the good works of other parts of the world." Indeed, in the 2005 election, he won the support of reformist voters who had become disillusioned with the failure of their own leaders to deliver greater freedom and modernization.
Not everyone is convinced of his good faith. Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who was Vice President to President Mohammed Khatami, the reformist President of Iran from 1997 to 2005, ridicules the idea that reformers would truly align themselves with the centrist bloc Qalibaf envisions. "In reality this is a political current constructed by the state in order to present personalities from the conservatives like Qalibaf as reformists," Abtahi says, pointing out that Qalibaf played a prominent role in quelling pro-democracy dissent during Khatami's presidency. And while perhaps not the unreconstructed revolutionary that Iran's hard-liners so admire, Qalibaf is unabashedly loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, Iran's ultimate authoritarian decision maker.
The open question is whether Qalibaf's modern style and conservative credentials could combine to enable him to improve relations with the West. He expresses delight with the U.S.'s overthrow of Saddam and support for the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, with which he recently held talks in Baghdad. "We sit down at one table to talk about specific issues, such as Iraq," Qalibaf says. "This shows that we can sit down at other tables too and talk with the U.S. [on other issues]." But it is vital, he adds, that the U.S. finally accepts the legitimacy of Iran's revolution.
Qalibaf does, at least, look for common ground with Americans. At this years' annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, he struck up a conversation with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on the threat of earthquakes facing their cities. The two men agreed to stay in contact. Might that dialogue prefigure an even more seismic shift in cooperation between Iran and the U.S.? "That's possible!" Qalibaf exclaims. Yet until Iran satisfies international concerns about its nuclear ambitions, it will take more than optimistic words to end the 30-year breach between Tehran and Washington.
7 months ago