Mainstream media in Iran-backed Arab capitals are standing at arm’s length from the two leading candidates in the upcoming Iranian elections, scheduled for 19 May. Ebrahim Raisi and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf are receiving next to no media coverage in the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese daily al-Akhbar or the Hezbollah-affiliated television station al-Manar. State-run channels in Baghdad and Damascus have, meanwhile, been completely mute on the Iranian elections, as have the Houthis of Yemen. Unlike the previous elections of 2013, which were front-page news in the Arab world, the studied silence of today is noteworthy – because it is intended to cover up links between both men and Arab Shiites.

On the other end of the spectrum, Saudi media giants such as al-Arabia TV and MBC, and the London-based Alsharq Alawsat, have been giving the elections front page and prime-time coverage since early April. Systematically, they have tried to ruin the frontrunner, the black-turbaned Ebrahim Raisi, who claims lineage to the Prophet Mohammad. They claim he wants to use the presidency as a stepping stone to replacing none other than the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Such ambition could, of course, land him on Khamenei’s blacklist and destroy his prospects.

For their part, both Raisi and Ghalibaf have distanced themselves from Arab squabbling – but both are heavily involved in Shiite affairs throughout the region. Ghalibaf has not uttered a word about Hezbollah, Syria, or Iraq but, on April 15, Raisi commented: “Foreign forces in Syria will always be a problem. The solution needs to come from the people of Syria, who should be allowed to determine their own future.” In practical terms, this means little since neither Raisi nor any other top Iranian politician considers Iranian troops operating in the Syrian battlefield to be “foreign forces.”

As far as they are concerned, they are “allies,” fighting at the official request of the Syrian government and the Grand Ayatollah. Many Arabs have read rather too much into Raisi’s statement, suggesting that, if elected, he would withdraw Iranian troops from Syria. This is incorrect, reflecting misunderstanding of how the deep state operates in Iran. The president – whoever he may turn out to be – has absolutely no say in such matters, which are subject to the will and command of the Supreme Leader, who has personally supervised Iran’s intervention in Syria since 2012, legitimizing it with phrases used by the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, to glorify the “sacred” fight against the Iraqi Army in the 1980s.

Military commanders salute during a meeting with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, February 7, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters
Military commanders salute during a meeting with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Iran, February 7, 2017. Photo: Handout via Reuters

During that eight-year conflict, Ghalibaf was one of the commanders of Iran’s Defense Forces, working closely with the Badr Brigade, an all-Iraqi Shiite militia founded by Tehran to help fight Saddam Hussein’s army. Ghalibaf developed an excellent working relationship with Iraqi Shiites, bankrolling their quasi-army and training their top commanders – young men at the time who have now risen to prominent posts in post-Saddam Iraq, as parliamentarians and affluent Shiite community leaders. When visiting Baghdad privately in recent years he has been given red carpet treatment at the homes of the moneyed elite, welcomed as a friend and patron. Ghalibaf was chief of the Iranian police at the time of Saddam’s ouster in 2003. He played a pivotal role in facilitating the return of Iraqi dissidents to Baghdad and preventing refugees from entering and infiltrating Iranian cities. When serving as commander of the Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force in the 1990s, he was a frequent guest of Hezbollah, helping to transfer arms, funds, and intelligence to the Lebanese guerrilla group and befriending its secretary-general, Hasan Nasrallah, whom he has known and worked with for over 20 years.

Ebrahim Raisi is recognized throughout Arab Shiite circles as chairman of the Astan Quds Razavi Foundation, which is the wealthiest foundation in the entire Muslim World, with an estimated annual revenue of US$210 billion generated from some 30 million pilgrims. It is a powerful state-within-a-state inside Iran, employing nearly 20,000 people. It has its own revenue-generating auto plants, agricultural projects, and real estate, which it rents out to hotels and restaurants in the city of Mashhad, in the Iranian northwest, close to the border with Afghanistan. He was appointed to the job in March 2016, replacing Khamenei’s long-serving son-in-law Abbas Vaez Tabasi – a testament to how close he really is to the Grand Ayatollah.

Obviously Raisi is on very bad terms with Saudi Arabia, whom he accused back in 2015 of deliberately allowing the stampede of 769 pilgrims at the annual hajj ceremony in Mecca, which led to the killing of over 400 Iranians

Raisi has used this platform to bankroll Shiite affiliates in Baghdad and Beirut, from mosques and foundations to militias and political parties. Hezbollah is a regular recipient of assistance from the foundation, and so is the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which owns the Badr Brigade. Obviously Raisi is on very bad terms with Saudi Arabia, whom he accused back in 2015 of deliberately allowing the stampede of 769 pilgrims at the annual hajj ceremony in Mecca, which led to the killing of over 400 Iranians, including Iran’s former ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi.

Shiite politicians throughout the Arab World are therefore not really worried about who will become the next president of Iran. They perceive that there are no “moderates” and “hardliners” in the election, as the western media continues to claim. Both Ghalibaf and Raisi have identical agendas when it comes to foreign policy, religion, nuclear weapons, and relations with the Arab World – and those are dictated from above by the Supreme Leader.