Iran Nuclear Program a Platform for Jalili Election Bid

Saeed Jalili, the face of Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the Islamic republic’s chief negotiator, is running for president on his record of defying global pressure to curtail the program.

Iran is “standing up to oppressive powers,” and interlocutors have “surrendered” in the face of its determination to continue with nuclear work, Jalili told state television on May 25, days after official campaigning began for the June 14 vote. “They want to secure what they already have. But we want to break through, to make progress in science and nuclear technology,” he said.

Jalili, 47, is one of eight candidates identified by the election watchdog, the Guardian Council, as loyal enough to the Islamic republic’s tenets to participate in the race. Most are close allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who takes the final decisions on affairs of state and has signaled he wants Iran’s establishment to present a united front during the contest. After the last vote in 2009, protests broke out amid claims that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory over a reformist leader was engineered by ballot fraud.

The closing of ranks, which saw two of the highest-profile candidates excluded during the vetting process, comes as Iran’s economy suffers under international sanctions. Oil output is the lowest since the 1980s, the currency has plunged and inflation is surging. With talks on a nuclear accord still deadlocked, military action by the U.S. or Israel remains a threat.

‘Very Traumatic’

If Jalili emerges as frontrunner, it would suggest Iran is undeterred by the “very traumatic impact on the economy” from sanctions, said Farideh Farhi, an Iran analyst and lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It would show “that Khamenei is not willing to change direction and wants to follow the same path. It’s an important message for a part of the population which had been hoping for a redirection.”

The U.S. and Israel say they are ready to use force to ensure Iran can’t obtain atomic weapons, if diplomacy and sanctions don’t persuade the Islamic republic to rein in its nuclear work. Iran says the program is for civilian purposes including energy and medical research.

Jalili isn’t the only nuclear negotiator who’s running for president. Hassan Rohani, the preferred candidate of Iran’s leading reformist politicians, held the job in the early 2000s.

‘It’s a Lie’

Rohani defended his record on a May 27 television show that showed how central to the campaign the nuclear issue is. Accused by the anchor of halting the program, Rohani fired back: “What you said is a lie, and you know it’s a lie.” He then listed the technical progress and increase in the number of centrifuges achieved during his watch.

Jalili, in negotiations with the U.S. and allies, has indicated Iran would consider limiting the scope of nuclear work in return for recognition of its right to enrich uranium, and the lifting of some sanctions. Jalili said on May 16 that Iran is ready “to pursue talks any time.”

At an election rally in Tehran on May 24, Jalili sounded less conciliatory.

“The more unyielding we are, the less greedy the enemy will be,” he told a crowd of about 3,000, mostly students and war veterans, who chanted “No compromise, no surrender, we are Jalili’s companions” as he arrived. More accustomed to backroom negotiations than public oratory, Jalili was hesitant at the start of his talk, and spoke without the dramatic gestures and rhetorical flourishes of Ahmadinejad.

‘Average Joe’

That’s one problem with his candidacy, said Anoush Ehteshami, professor of international relations at Durham University in England. “He looks good to the establishment, not to the average Joe in the streets.”

Iranian newspaper readers are used to seeing Jalili photographed in a suit, standing alongside foreign officials at nuclear meetings. He’s started trying to tweak that image. At the Tehran rally he was wearing a loose shirt and pants, and when he showed up to register for the election he was in a Pride, a mid-range model by local carmaker SAIPA, according to local news reports.

Jalili is on solid ground when it comes to Iran’s elite, said Ehteshami. “He’s been at the heart of the Supreme National Security Council for years and has deep reach into the organs of power,” he said. He’s “regarded as trustworthy by the supreme leader” and won’t “overstep his role as president.”

That’s no longer true of Ahmadinejad, who has publicly quarreled with top officials and been attacked for showing rebelliousness toward Khamenei. Ahmadinejad said he had no plans to endorse Jalili, Donya-e-Eqtesad newspaper reported today.

‘My Candidate’

Jalili’s perceived loyalty plays well with some voters.

“Jalili is my candidate because he follows our supreme leader’s orders on the nuclear issue,” said Afsaneh Jadidi, a 23 year-old psychology student who attended the Tehran rally. “We want a president who listens and does what the leader says.”

Born in the northeastern city of Mashhad, also Khamenei’s hometown, Jalili lost part of a leg fighting in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988. He holds a doctorate in political science from Tehran’s Imam Sadegh University, where he wrote his thesis on the foreign policy of the Prophet Mohammad, according to Press TV.

He has served in Khamenei’s office and at the Foreign Ministry, where he was deputy minister for European and American affairs. In 2007 he became secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Khamenei Favorites

Jalili “is supported by the most conservative factions of the establishment” and has strong links with the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite military force, said Jamie Ingram, an analyst at IHS Jane’s in London. Along with Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s longtime foreign policy adviser, Jalili appears to be one of the supreme leader’s favorites in the race, Ingram said.

For all the hardline rhetoric, a Jalili presidency wouldn’t necessarily mean continued deadlock on the nuclear issue, Farhi said. Whoever wins, concessions from Iran will depend “on the other side showing flexibility on the question of easing sanctions.”

Still, she said, “the U.S. may be willing to be more flexible if another candidate wins the election.”

(Updates with Ahmadinejad saying he won’t support Jalili in 15th paragraph.)
    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE