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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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"
to revolutionary principles (0-5)
are "revolutionary principles"? For Khamenei, it means a commitment to velayet-e faqih, Ayatollah Ruhollah
Khomeini's political-religious concept that legitimizes the rule of the Shiite
clergy; resistance toward the United States and Israel; and preserving Islamic
cultural mores such as the mandatory veiling of women, forbiddance of alcohol,
and vibrant religious seminaries.
this campaign, all the candidates have publicly paid lip service to these
principles. In years past, however, several have expressed sympathy behind
closed doors with the views of Khatami and Rafsanjani, who believe that the
Islamic Republic must evolve with the times in order to sustain itself.
campaign slogans, which employ Islamic principles to justify political and
economic resistance against the United States and Israel, align closely with
Khamenei's worldview. "We are seeking to dry up the roots of the Zionist
regime," Jalili has said. "Instead, we
promote the Islamic system. This discourse rejects domination. This is the
discourse of the Islamic revolution."
In 16 years as foreign minister and
two decades as Khamenei's foreign policy advisor, Velayati's statements are
often platitudinal and rarely, if ever, deviate from the party line. "I will
make effort to promote the Islamic culture and Iranian identity," he said on the
campaign trail. "Abidance to the law and the Leadership will be the most
important characteristics of my administration and ethicality will be a code of
conduct for us."
While Rezaei has advocated
opening relations with the United States, he also has gone to great lengths for
the Islamic Republic. A prominent Iranian-American academic alleged that in
1978, Rezaei personally assassinated his father, formerly an engineer in
the National Iranian Oil Company. Rezaei is also wanted by Interpol
for his alleged role in the 1994 bombing
of a Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured 300. He
has denied these allegations.
While Ghalibaf publicly pays lip
service to revolutionary principles, in private he often talks about a need for
Iran to put economic and national interests ahead of ideological ones. In
contrast to reformists, who advocate greater political and social freedoms,
Ghalibaf's philosophy of governance appears to resemble the modern
authoritarianism of China. He is not overly interested in Islamic pieties --
he's more focused on securing power in his own hands.
acolyte of Rafsanjani, Rowhani's nuclear negotiating team consisted of three
moderate, U.S.-educated advisors, all of whom have advocated rapprochement with
Washington. In contrast to other clerics -- like Khamenei -- who spent their
formative educational years in Qom or Najaf and berate Western cultural mores,
Rowhani spent time studying in Glasgow, although the veracity
of his PhD is in question.
Islamic Republic is one of the most challenging governments in the world to
manage. It rules over a young, disaffected population, some three quarters of
which was born after the 1979 revolution. Its leadership -- namely, Khamenei --
operates under a bunker mentality that assumes the United States is committed
to its overthrow. And it is grievously isolated from the international
community: Iran suffers from U.S. sanctions against its central bank, a
European oil embargo, and six U.N. Security Council resolutions. The inflation
rate is estimated to be more than
40 percent, and the youth unemployment rate is similarly sky-high. Most of Iran's
top managers and technocrats either fled the country after the revolution or
emigrated abroad in the past three decades, and those who worked under previous
presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami have subsequently been purged from the
system. In other words, few first-rate managers are also revolutionary
ideologues and Khamenei devotees.
Ghalibaf has received high marks as
mayor of Tehran for the last 8 years. Despite ostensibly having a PhD in "geopolitics," the biggest vacuum in his managerial
resume is foreign policy experience.
Rowhani has boasted that under his
shrewd management, Iran made progress on its nuclear program without being
subjected to U.N. Security Council resolutions. Running a small nuclear
negotiating team, however, is much different than managing an unruly nation of 75
As lead IRGC commander during the
Iran-Iraq war, Rezaei has experience overseeing hundreds of thousands of men.
His lectures since then make him sound like an Islamist Jack Welch, touting his
managerial acumen. During the war years, however, he was known as a hot-headed
commander who didn't know when to retreat.
Velayati, who was trained as a
medical doctor, has never been one to proclaim, "the buck stops here." As
foreign minister, his tenure was dominated by strongmen -- Khomeini,
Rafsanjani, and Khamenei -- who were the primary decision makers of Iranian
supreme leader's yes-man has little management experience to speak of. "His
entire resume consists of showing up at a few negotiations and saying ‘no,'" a
prominent Tehran businessman told me, sarcastically. "This of course makes him
eminently more qualified than anyone else."
support isn't a primary factor for Khamenei -- if it were, very few of the
current candidates would be in the race -- but it could prove challenging for
him to simply anoint the most servile candidate without any consideration for
what the people want. That said, high vote turnout has always been priority for
Khamenei, in order to project international legitimacy. "A vote for any candidate," Khamenei frequently
says, "is a vote for the Islamic Republic."
Iranian public opinion polls should
be taken with a large chunk of salt, given the inherent challenges of asking
authoritarian-ruled societies sensitive political questions. In the last
several days, however, Rowhani's candidacy has experienced a surge which is
palpable both empirically and anecdotally. The lone "reformist" voice of a
young population thirsty for change, Rowhani lacks Khatami's genial touch, is
for millions of Iranians the least bad option.
Ghalibaf leads most "official"
polls, and finishes a close second to Rowhani in arguably the most objective
unofficial poll. His reputation, however, took a blow among the youth and
middle classes, when audiotapes were released in which he boasted of
personally crushing student protests in 1999 and 2003 while head of Iran's
astute Iranian scholar Mohsen Milani told me, Jalili is "not merely
uncharismatic, he's anti-charismatic." Despite all the resources at his
disposal, Jalili lags behinds in both official and unofficial polls. His harsh
demeanor has made little inroads with the country's urban youth -- arguably
the most important voting bloc. Nor does he employ the same pious populism as
Mahmoud "I will put the oil money on your dinner
Rezaei is a less charismatic version
of Ghalibaf -- a military commander who touts his non-ideological management
skills. In media speak, he also has a "face for radio,"
which perhaps explains his low support among women.
his recent endorsement by a group of Iranian
and MPs, Velayati's social and institutional support base is limited. Without
the support of the basij, IRGC, urban
youth, and moderate middle class, Velayati's sole constituency is Khamenei.
Guard support (0-5)
there is little evidence to back some analysts' assumption that Khamenei
has become a servant to his own "praetorian guards," there is ample proof that
the IRGC has eclipsed the clergy in terms of economic and political influence.
Given Khamenei's increasing reliance on the Revolutionary Guards in nuclear
issues, on Syria, circumventing sanctions, and maintaining public order, it
makes sense that it is perhaps the most critical interest group that he has to
take into account.
A decorated war veteran, Ghalibaf
joined the IRGC at the tender age of 19 and quickly rose through the ranks. His
rapport with the military institution is perhaps akin to that of an American
high school football captain years after graduation. His former teammates
respect him, and the younger generation respects his legacy. Qassem Soleimani
-- commander of the IRGC's powerful Qods force unit -- reportedly endorsed Ghalibaf.
Jalili, who is sometimes referred to
as a "living martyr" because he lost part of his leg fighting in the Iran-Iraq
war, isn't shy about mentioning his military service. But his low-level service
in the IRGC during the war can't compete with Ghalibaf. Jalili, however, is
reportedly more popular with the younger generation IRGC cadres who are devoted
Rezaei belongs to the first
generation of IRGC commanders, and is less well known to today's servicemen
since he has been out of the service for nearly two decades.
Velayati never served in the war, or
in the IRGC. He's a product of the Foreign Ministry -- a considerably less
important electoral constituency in Tehran (as in DC).
Rowhani did not serve in the war,
and his association with reformists -- who have been critical of the IRGC's
outsize role in Iran's politics and economics -- will not win him points here.
So, who wins?
Tabulating these numbers produces the following result:
the outcome of the Iranian election depends less on the sum total of these
numbers and more on one's opinion of how the system itself functions. Those who
trust the integrity of the electoral process -- an increasingly small group -- foresee a run-off between Rowhani and Ghalibaf. Those who believe that
Khamenei's decision is paramount project Jalili as the obvious winner. And perhaps
for the first time, Khamenei may see his interests in conflict with those of
the Revolutionary Guards.
If past is precedent, however, there's one thing we do know:
predicting anything about Iran's opaque politics is a fool's errand. And, having never progressed beyond college calculus I am
no Nate Silverzadeh. But
if there's something that seems like a good bet, it's that the Supreme Leader will
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