Is Ezzatollah Zarghami the next populist to rise from Iran’s hard-line camp? The recent activities of the former head of the conservative-dominated state broadcaster, who has been in constant verbal clashes with moderate President Hassan Rouhani, certainly raises this question.
Born into a religious family in 1959, Zarghami's father never bought a television. He, however, ended up being a cinephile, binging on movies. In high school, he was a classmate of Hassan Tehrani-Moghaddam, the father of Iran's ballistic missile program who was killed in 2011, and also former Reformist parliamentarian Hamid Reza Katouzian. When the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah, then 20-year-old Zarghami was just starting a civil engineering program at Amirkabir University. Soon, he became one of the students who seized the American Embassy, leading to the cutting of diplomatic relations with the United States.
Zarghami also became involved in cultural activities. He joined the newly formed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a radio anchor during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. For a period of time during the conflict, he led the teams tasked with domestically producing missiles — a first for Iran, which was being showered with missiles fired by Saddam Hussein’s forces as almost no country was willing to sell it arms. Zarghami left the IRGC with the rank of general. In an interview last year, he stated that his resignation stemmed from his interest and activities in politics.
In 1995, Zarghami was appointed deputy culture minister overseeing cinematic affairs, a position he held for two years. During his tenure, he issued harsh guidelines for artists, while the process for getting script approvals became more difficult. His approach was met with dissatisfaction among cinema activists, leading to then-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani distancing himself from Zarghami. He, however, believes he paved the way for artists, claiming to have had friendships with prominent directors, including Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away in 2016.
In 2004, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei appointed Zarghami as head of the state broadcaster. His 10-year tenure as the chairman of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) overlapped with three presidencies: Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-present). Throughout the term of hard-liner Ahmadinejad, whose presidency saw the Iranian economy experience a downturn and which was criticized for mismanagement of both domestic and foreign policy, Zarghami stood firmly behind him, covering the country's situation in a way that was perceived as biased while giving little space to Reformists and moderates. He developed his ties with Ahmadinejad and accompanied him on his 2010 trip to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York. According to Zarghami, the two repeatedly spoke on the phone when Ahmadinejad was in office — a relationship he has maintained to this day.
What may have contributed to the Zarghami-Ahmadinejad friendship the most were the events of 2009. In the tumultuous presidential election that year, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner while the two Reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, said that the ballot was rigged. Massive protests followed in a number of cities, including Tehran. At the time, many blamed Zarghami for the tensions in the country, given the IRIB’s biased coverage of events, which provoked supporters of the Reformist candidates. This approach lasted through Zarghami's tenure and up until this day. Of note, Zarghami did not accept Mousavi's request to address the public in a live broadcast, insisting that it be pre-recorded. Moreover, a number of prominent TV hosts were banned under Zarghami.
After Rouhani's electoral victory in 2013, Zarghami described Ahmadinejad as a "precious treasure for the Islamic Republic" and a "unique figure who swiftly turned into a global figure."
When Rouhani sought to give a televised address to explain the results of the first 100 days of his presidency, the two disagreed over the preferred interviewer, resulting in a one-hour delay in the airing of the address. The state broadcaster had, at the time, also turned against the government, which was engaged in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program with six world powers. As Zarghami's tenure as IRIB chairman came to an end in 2014, he grew more active on social media, including Instagram, Telegram and Twitter. Meanwhile, he held breakfast meetings with controversial figures — whether Reformists or hard-liners — in order to portray himself as an inclusive politician.
While reports emerged in 2016 about a potential run in the presidential election the following year, he rejected them. However, he then appeared as a candidate of the conservative coalition known by its Persian acronym JAMNA. Zarghami ultimately lost JAMNA’s backing, which went to conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi and former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. He was further enraged when Raisi announced that he would be running independent of JAMNA, calling for Raisi’s exclusion from JAMNA's ticket.
While Zarghami has intensified his activities on social media and has taken relatively soft positions regarding such platforms and social issues, he expresses harsh views in private settings. He recently got into a verbal fight with Rouhani at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, reportedly telling the president: "What was that thing that you said about the hijab, cyberspace and [internet] filtering? Some of your remarks were unrealistic and some others were against Islamic and revolutionary values." Rouhani is said to have replied, "I am not obliged to answer you. Get out [of here]," adding that he would no longer participate in the meeting as long as Zarghami was present.
Rouhani had on Jan. 21 slammed the arrests of women for not strictly observing the hijab, and described the state policy of blocking social media as a "mistake." These positions caused serious disagreements among Iranian elites, rallying hard-liners — and particularly the new generation of conservatives — behind Zarghami on social media. This is while Zarghami had previously stated that if there are "active and strong" local messaging apps, the existence of thousands of foreign versions of such apps would not be a problem. He has also blamed Rouhani for the blocking of Telegram.
While maintaining his presence in the media, Zarghami is seeking to portray himself as a potential leader of a new generation of hard-liners: a bipartisan justice-seeker, a supporter of minority rights, a figure opposed to the dire conditions faced by ordinary Iranians. He often expresses open-minded positions in public, even though his past and current activities indicate a different mindset. However, given the disappointment with both Reformists and conservatives, the possibility of an Ahmadinejad-type populist rising to power is high. Zarghami, who is following in the footsteps of the former conservative president, has the potential to be that populist leader.
Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
- The award-winning Middle East Lobbying - The Influence Game
- Archived articles
- Exclusive events
- The Week in Review
- Lobbying newsletter delivered weekly