David Patrikarakos
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on : Friday, 7 Jun, 2013
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Limited Options

A guaranteed victory for Iran’s conservatives in the presidential elections

SAFFRON blog: A highly prized spice native to Iran, historically used in ancient Persia to medicate, dye, weave, and beautify. Today it gives Iranian cuisine its distinctive yellow pigment. ‘Saffron’ flavors the discussion of all things Iranian.

Female supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili hold up his posters during a campaign rally, on May 24, 2013 in Tehran, Iran. MAJID SAEEDI/Getty Images

Female supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Saeed Jalili hold up his posters during a campaign rally on May 24, 2013 in Tehran, Iran. (MAJID SAEEDI/Getty Images)


With just a week to go until Iran’s presidential election on June 14, things look bleak for Iranians of a reformist nature. Iran’s Guardian Council has done its job and whittled a list of 686 registered candidates down to eight, all of whom can be classed as conservatives loyal to the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.

Rather dramatically, there was no place among the approved candidates for former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was struck off the list—surprising many who believed the government would never ban someone of such importance in Iran. But since the unrest that followed the 2009 elections, Rafsanjani has been hugely critical of the leadership. It is clear that Khamenei will not allow anyone who might become a focal point for opposition and grievance to stand. He will not allow 2009 to happen again.

It does show the sad state of affairs in Iran when Hashemi Rafsanjani, a conservative, was seen as the great hope for reform in the country. However, he is one thing above all else: a pragmatist, and a mercantile pragmatist to boot. A billionaire himself, he believes Iran needs to be ‘open for business.’ Indeed, during his presidency, he tried to heal relations with the US by offering Washington the possibility of lucrative oil pipelines through Iran, believing his overtures would be met by a receptive US steeped in the school of Kissingerian realism. (He was wrong.) Without doubt, he was the P5+1’s favored presidential candidate.

But there is no place for him. In fact, of the eight candidates approved by the Guardian Council, only two have a chance of winning. The first is Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, the current mayor of Tehran, currently serving his second term after his initial election in 2005. Qalibaf has a long history of service to the Islamic Republic: at the age of nineteen, he was made a commander in the Iranian defense forces during the Iran–Iraq War, serving with enough distinction to be later appointed a commander of the Revolutionary Guards Air Force. He has boasted openly of beating protestors with sticks during the 1999 student uprising, after which Khamenei personally appointed him head of the Iranian Police Forces. He was also successful in suppressing the student protests in 2003 and the protests following the 2009 elections. He is a regime man to his core.

As the former head of the Revolutionary Guard Air Force, he has the vote of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds force, which more than likely means that he has much of the organization behind him. His election campaign received another public endorsement when, on May 28, 120 members of Iran’s parliament (more than 40 percent of its total) signed a declaration of support for him.

Qalibaf has recently tried to present himself as a more moderate politician by condemning Ahmadinejad’s denial of the holocaust and calling for a more balanced international diplomacy. These efforts could help win him support from among the more moderate elements within Iran’s conservatives, including some that might have voted for Hashemi Rafsanjani. How sincere he is remains to be seen, but his attempts to play to the center ground indicate some awareness of the need for a change in policy.

He is also the only real threat to the man considered to be the favorite: Saeed Jalili, Iran’s current chief nuclear negotiator. Jalili has held the post since 2007, when he was chosen to replace Ali Larijani. The latter had resigned in exasperation after repeated clashes with Ahmadinejad, who believed him to be insufficiently robust in nuclear negotiations with the West. Jalili is an ideological ally of the supreme leader himself, and thought to be Khamenei’s personal choice for president. Depressingly, he is by far the most outspoken hard-liner among the eight candidates approved.

Jalili opposes détente with the West “a hundred percent” and promises no compromise “whatsoever” over Iran’s nuclear program. An anonymous Iranian analyst described Jalili as “the perfect follower of Khamenei.”

Along with Qalibaf, Jalili has garnered the support of a coalition of conservative clerics and IRGC commanders known as the traditionalists. High-ranking clerics have begun endorsing him, and a powerful paramilitary organization, the Basij, is helping to organize his election campaign.

Khamenei recently said that the best president “is the one who powerfully resists the enemy and will turn the Islamic Republic into an international example for the oppressed people of the world.” Jalili fits this bill perfectly. Indeed, he appears to privilege “resistance” above all else. While Iran’s economy continues to plummet due to international sanctions—reeling from high inflation and a battered currency—Jalili refuses to seriously address the issue. During a recent televised interview, he said that the country should cut its dependency on oil revenues and establish a “resistance economy” in order to “foil the conspiracies against Iran.” Judging by his rhetoric, Jalili believes Tehran is fighting an ideological war in which the economy is secondary. Indeed, he has said on several occasions that the sanctions offer an opportunity for economic growth.

With frontrunners like this, it does not look like change will come to the Islamic Republic any time soon, and certainly not from the top. But as the international sanctions make life progressively worse for millions of ordinary Iranians, Khamenei’s continual failure to address the country’s problems in favor of surrounding himself with loyal underlings may prove to be a serious mistake, for him and for the regime itself.

David Patrikarakos

David Patrikarakos

David Patrikarakos is the author of Nuclear Iran: The Birth of an Atomic State, which was shortlisted for International Affairs Book of the Year at the Political Book awards, and an Associate Fellow of the School of Iranian Studies, St Andrews University.

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