When Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, makes public appearances, there are often two individuals trailing close behind him: the white-turbaned Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, head of the Office of the Supreme Leader, and the balding Vahid Haghanian, a towering, plump man partial to multipocketed raincoats. Haghanian’s official title is deputy for special affairs for the Office of the Supreme Leader.
Haghanian began appearing publicly with Khamenei after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first electoral victory, in 2005, and without a doubt is one of Khamenei's closest advisers. Other than his having a military background, however, little is known about Haghanian, who is sometimes referred to as Commander Vahid or Mr. Vahid.
Rarely, if ever, has Haghanian made comments to the media, which has increased the mystery surrounding the extent of his influence. Thus, when he attacked an official for politicizing earthquake relief efforts in the western part of the country, his comments lit up Iranian social media.
On Nov. 13, First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said that the majority of the buildings destroyed throughout the Kermanshah region in the earthquake were part of the government-subsidized Mehr Housing Scheme, a major nationwide project to provide affordable housing initiated under Ahmadinejad. Jahangiri said that he had ordered officials to investigate why the newer Mehr buildings had collapsed. More than 500 people have been reported killed in the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that struck Nov. 13 in the Kermanshah region, along the Iran-Iraq border.
Jahangiri was certainly aware that public criticism of the Mehr Housing Scheme would have political dimensions. A signature project of the Ahmadinejad-era, the scheme was riddled with accusations of corruption and poor construction and was blamed in part for driving up inflation.
During a visit to Kermanshah to examine earthquake relief efforts, Haghanian was recorded on a cellphone camera speaking to a group of people. “God damn Vice President Jahangiri,” Haghanian said, apparently unaware that he was being recorded. “At the first opportunity, he quickly [brings up] the Mehr Housing Scheme at the resistance economy meeting. What does that have to do with [earthquake recovery]?”
After the video went viral on social media, Haghanian, standing in front of rubble that resembled the destruction one would expect in war-torn Syria, said into a camera phone, “I did not intend to insult the vice president or the administration." He added, “I have worked with him for 25 years, and that gathering [where he cursed Jahangiri] was private. I said some things that were not meant to be published, but the reality is that when something happens, we should not make it political.”
Haghanian defended Mehr homes and added that the destroyed homes behind where he was standing for his statement were all private homes. He said there were no Mehr buildings at that particular location.
The relief efforts were bound to become political. During a televised meeting with various Iranian officials, including the heads of the executive, judiciary and legislature, Khamenei said that they were a “test for the authorities.” Both the regular army and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have been involved in the recovery operations, and conservative media have mainly highlighted statements by their officials.
While comments by IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari and commander of IRGC ground forces Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour have not been overtly political, visits to the Kermanshah region and speeches are designed to indicate that they are leading the recovery efforts.
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