A close reading of Iranian politics over the last decade would suggest that Friday's presidential election could well be decided on the principle of "one man, one vote" -- that one man, of course, being Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
All of Tehran's most powerful institutions -- namely the Revolutionary Guards, bassij paramilitary, Intelligence Ministry, Guardian Council, Parliament, judiciary, state television, and wealthy religious foundations (bonyads), to name a few -- are led by individuals either handpicked by Khamenei or unfailingly obsequious to him.
Based on the premise that there are few cases in history in which Middle Eastern autocrats have restrained themselves at the buffet table of power, Khamenei is likely trying to actively influence -- if not decide the outcome of -- Friday's ballot. As such, the Islamic Republic's version of Nate Silver -- who expertly synthesized public opinion polls to predict the outcome of the 2012 U.S. presidential election -- is less a statistician and more a psychologist who can best understand what's going on in the supreme leader's head.
Mindful of the fact that the graveyard of Middle East analysis is littered with the bones of those who tried to predict Iranian presidential election outcomes, bear with me as I try to Nate Silverzadeh the Iranian electoral field. Rather than attempt to gauge the will of the people, what follows is an attempt to gauge the election from Khamenei's eyes.
So what are the qualities that the Supreme Leader seeks in the next president? In his own words, he wants a "competent, virtuous, pious, revolutionary, resolute and steadfast person with jihadi perseverance, who can shoulder the heavy responsibility of [boosting] the country's dignity and progress."
Like all understandably paranoid autocrats, however, Khamenei above all seeks something that has been lacking in all previous presidents that have served under him -- subservience. The Guardian Council, which is under his control, disqualified 678 of the 686 potential presidential candidates -- including such heavyweights as the former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and outgoing President Mahmoud Ahamdinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Iran's contenders for the country's top job (wait, make that No. 2) have gotten the hint, crafting their rhetoric to appeal as much to the supreme leader as to voters.
Candidates have courted the popular vote while simultaneously auditioning to be the supreme leader's trusted lieutenant -- someone whom Khamenei can count on to have accountability but little power, so he can wield power without accountability. Here's a guide to the frontrunners.
Mohammed Bagher Ghalibaf: Mayor of Tehran and a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander. Ghalibaf's campaign dilemma resembles Mitt Romney's in 2012 -- he's a man who wants to run as a pragmatic manager, yet has to pay lip-service to his conservative base. In Ghalibaf's case that base isn't a loose collection of Tea Party enthusiasts, but Khamenei.
Saeed Jalili: Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and head of its Supreme National Security Council, which serves a comparable role to its U.S. counterpart (think Tom Donilon meets Hassan Nasrallah). In a nutshell, Jalili is twice as ideological as Ahmadinejad, and half as charismatic.
Ali Akbar Velayati: Think of him as an Islamist Warren Christopher, the "unswervingly uncharismatic" former U.S. Secretary of State and trusted presidential consigliere. Velayati was Iran's longest-serving foreign minister and has been a long-time confidante of the Supreme Leader.
Hassan Rowhani: Previous head of Iran's National Security Council and its former chief nuclear negotiator under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, Rowhani is Iran's John Kerry (circa 2004) in that his constituents -- including many embattled Green Movement supporters -- are far more animated against the status-quo than they are animated about Rowhani himself.
Mohsen Rezaei: The lead commander of the IRGC during the Iran-Iraq war, Rezaei can perhaps be best understood as the Alexander Haig of Iranian politics. He's a military commander cum businessman who's always thought of himself as presidential material.
Based on the qualities and qualifications that Khamenei seeks in the next president, how does each candidate stack up?
While each candidate has gone out of his way to praise Khamenei and declare his fidelity to the Islamic Republic's theocratic political model, some have expressed more devotion than others.
Jalili has shown himself to be the supreme minion. The nuclear negotiator's political devotion should come as no surprise: Once an anonymous apparatchik in the foreign ministry, Jalili's political career took off after working as chief of staff to Khamenei. In a recent press conference with university students, Jallili was asked whether he would sacrifice his life for the Supreme Leader: "Inshallah [God willing]," he said, while kissing the Quran.
A longtime Khamenei advisor and confidante, Velayati has proven his loyalty to Khamenei over three decades, though given their similar age and experience he is unlikely to be as servile as Jalili.
While Ghalibaf is publicly deferential toward Khamenei, he is one of the few Iranian politicians whose lightly concealed ambitions for power and authority rival that of the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Given his background as both a military commander and the head of Iran's police force, Ghalibaf is used to giving orders more than taking them.
As nuclear negotiator, Rowhani would respectfully disagree with Khamenei, according to members of his nuclear negotiating team. The presidential hopeful has also won the endorsements of former Presidents Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, leaders on the reformist end of the spectrum who favor limiting the supreme leader's vast powers. As a result, Khamenei likely sees Rowhani's candidacy as a Trojan horse for his rivals.
During Iran's eight-year war with Iraq, Rezaei -- then the top IRGC commander -- frequently sparred with Khamenei, who was Iran's president from 1981-1989. A senior Iranian diplomat once told me that the notoriously unforgiving Khamenei continues to "despise" Rezaei.