For the past few months, the fans of Iranian singer Amir Tataloo have been scratching their heads. What has got into their idol? Tataloo, well known for his scandalous lyrics, is usually a fixture of Tehran’s underground scene and a regular sight at some of the city’s hidden bars and night clubs. Yet he recently made a surprising announcement on social media: he was supporting the presidential campaign of Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Tehran’s ultra-conservative mayor. Has Tataloo just changed his mind… or is something more sinister going on?

Tataloo is one of Iran’s most popular singers. For proof, just look at his Instagram account, which boasts four million followers. With his multiple tattoos and piercings, Tataloo looks more like a bad boy than a traditional religious conservative.

Tataloo’s song lyrics are all about love and sensuality: “How I miss the taste of your lips”, “I’m yours, so take this body and fix it”, and “Your body is glued to mine and I can’t sleep any other way” are just a few prime examples. There’s no doubt that these kind of lyrics definitely fall into the “immoral” category for the conservative, religious Iranian authorities.

A song glorifying the nuclear programme

Considering all that, it’s a little hard to understand what could have incited Tataloo to suddenly promote the presidential ambitions of Mayor Ghalibaf, who is a diehard conservative, with close ties to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the Iranian head of state and commander-in-chief of its armed forces. In fact, Ghalibaf once served as commander of the Revolutionary Guards (a paramilitary group tied to the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution). Ghalibaf is also the former chief of police in Tehran under whose orders hundreds of young people were arrested for “un-Islamic” behaviour. As if that weren’t enough to set him at odds with an underground singer like Tataloo, Mayor Ghalibaf actually banned teaching music in municipal cultural centres across the capital in 2014.

But there are some clues that might help explain this bizarre shift in Tataloo’s behavior. First and foremost, he has recently run afoul of the authorities. He was first arrested in 2014, then released shortly thereafter. He was arrested for a second time in 2015. Once again, he was freed, but, strangely, a few months later, a video started circulating online showing Tataloo singing a song supporting the Iranian nuclear programme whilst standing on a warship.

Getting access to film on a warship like that would be almost impossible without someone powerful pulling the strings. Moreover, the production quality of Tataloo’s video is also surprisingly slick. Does Tataloo now have friends in high places?

Support the Supreme Leader “at all costs”

Perhaps most surprising is that since the release of his video, Tataloo has taken to social media on numerous occasions to announce his support for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, calling on people to support him “at all costs”.

Over the past few days, Tataloo has taken it all a step further. He published a photo on social media showing Mayor Ghalibaf with a former commander of the Quds Forces, a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards that is responsible for Iranian military intervention in Iraq and Syria. In the post, Tataloo called them both heroes. He also said that the next president should be chosen by the Supreme Leader himself – instead of being elected – and that Ghalibaf was the most qualified candidate. The Iranian presidential election is set for next month, May 19.

Tataloo’s followers weren’t thrilled about this rather undemocratic post.

However, this time, Tataloo actually offered up an explanation for his act... in a hidden sort of way. On April 22, he published a sound file on the Telegram app. In the recording, Tataloo said that “a friend” had made these comments and that he was just repeating them.

But the “friend” that Tataloo mentions isn’t just anyone. According to Tataloo, he is a member of the Revolutionary Guards, someone with “enough political information to provide us with excellent guidance”. Tataloo also said that he did not feel able to choose a candidate himself and, instead, put complete faith in the choice made by his “friend”.

The authorities' Trojan horse

The cryptic message in this sound file would seem to indicate that Tataloo is being used by conservative authorities in Iran as a sort of Trojan horse to infiltrate the world of young, liberal Iranians.

This isn’t the first time that authorities have used this kind of strategy. Other artists, Iranian singers, actors and directors have also had to start promoting ideas counter to their beliefs in exchange for their liberty. However, this is the first time that an artist in the grip of the authorities has provided such clear hints of what is actually going on.

According to Iranian laws, the Revolutionary Guards aren’t supposed to meddle with politics. However, the organisation has been known to arrest members of the opposition, prevent protests and finance ultra-conservative candidates.

On May 19, Ghalibaf will be running as one of five opponents to the current president, the centrist Hassan Rouhani, who is campaigning for a second four-year term.