By Yasmin Alem, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Yasmin Alem is an analyst on Iranian elections and domestic politics and author of Duality by Design: the Iranian Electoral System. The views expressed are her own.
Much of the Western media might already have crowned Saeed Jalili the likely winner of Iran’s presidential election on June 14. But his presumed frontrunner status isn’t necessarily based on the political realities on the ground, a close reading of the Iranian press, or the country’s opinion polls. Indeed, Western commentators may well be putting the cart before the horse as they handicap this race.
The hype surrounding Jalili’s candidacy isn’t new. Numerous reports over the past year have suggested that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and paramilitary forces – known collectively known as the Basij – plan to endorse Jalili’s nomination. As early as last May, a number of websites in the Persian blogosphere announced their support for the candidacy of the “living martyr.”
Then, last month, Iran’s most important “voter,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described his ideal candidate as someone who is “brave and fearless in the international arena and in the face of arrogant powers, and who has planning, wisdom and foresight in the domestic arena, and believes in the resistance economy.”
Such a description sounded tailor made for Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator. After all, his lack of independent power base would be reassuring for Khamenei, who is no doubt looking for a loyal and subservient president following the problems he has had with the outspoken Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the focus on Jalili might be misguided.
For a start, it may well be more that Jalili has been successful in portraying himself as the Supreme Leader’s ideal candidate, rather than Khamenei singling out Jalili. After all, Jalili has fashioned his campaign platform around Khamenei’s preferred topic of “resistance.”
But Jalili’s opportunism extends past the Supreme Leader to other power centers. For example, Jalili’s promotion of an “Islamic Civilization” is an obvious nod to the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij forces, who originally adopted that slogan. Both this and Jalili’s apparent mirroring of the Supreme Leader’s views suggest that he is more interested in endearing himself to Khamenei and the country’s elite than the country’s youthful population as a whole.
Second, traditional and moderate conservatives actually dislike Jalili. Indeed, prominent members of parliament have been openly critical of Jalili, accusing him of inexperience and dogmatism. During one of the presidential debates, broadcast live on Iran’s state-run television on June 7, Ali Akbar Velayati – a former foreign minister and Khamenei’s current senior foreign policy advisor – lambasted Jalili for his stewardship of the nuclear dossier. “We have not moved one step forward, while the pressure on people is increasing every day,” he said , according to the Financial Times.
It would be difficult to imagine that Velayati’s criticism of Jalili would be born solely of his own initiative, a reality that has prompted some analysts to speculate that Khamenei may be looking for a nuclear exit strategy – and that Jalili could be his scapegoat. Even if this is farfetched, Velayati’s comments could indicate dissatisfaction with Jalili’s ability to implement the Supreme Leader’s vision.
Jalili’s opaque relationship with Ahmadinejad adds a further complication. It is no secret that Jalili owes his fast track diplomatic ascent to Ahmadinejad, who after becoming president in 2005 appointed Jalili as deputy foreign minister. It was Jalili who was reportedly entrusted with the task of helping to draft the unprecedented 18-page letter that Ahmadinejad sent to President George W. Bush in 2006. The following year, Ahmadinejad engineered the downfall of his archrival, Ali Larijani, as head of the Supreme National Security Council, promoting Jalili to the post. Such a history is troubling for many voters eyeing a break with Ahmadinejad’s disastrous economic mismanagement.
Finally, historical precedent may work against Jalili. Parliamentary polls held in the last year of a president’s second term usually set the tone for the presidential election, and so the decline of hardline forces in the March 2012 parliamentary poll does not bode well for a Jalili victory. What’s more, historically, when popular discontent is widespread, the Iranian electorate opts for change, not continuation, of the status quo. This is what happened in 1997, when power shifted from pragmatist hands to those of reformists, and in 2005 when conservatives unseated the reformists.
Still, despite the odds being against him, Jalili could still come out on top. He is unlikely to be able to muster enough votes in the first round, but he might be able to triumph in a run-off (especially if a little election “engineering” takes place).
Frontrunner or not, a Jalili victory would have important implications for the course of politics in the Islamic Republic. By propping up Jalili, the Supreme Leader would inevitably alienate traditional conservatives and even some segments of the revolutionary guards who support Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, leaving Khamenei even lonelier at the top.
But Jalili winning would also signal that loyalty to the Supreme Leader would trump competence. In the short-term, this might cement the Supreme Leader’s control over decisions and narrow the circle of the elite to a handful of military, intelligence and security officials. Yet it would also come at the cost of the kind of competent leadership that an isolated and economically shattered country desperately needs.