It is rumored that the supreme leader and the IRGC favor certain candidates, but it is possible, though unlikely, that the winner of the June 14 election will be a surprise. Furthermore, history shows that even a handpicked presidential victor—such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—can disobey his masters and disappoint those who brought him to power. Bearing this in mind, it is worth taking some time to learn more about the candidates.
Saeed Jalili is perhaps presidential candidate most known in the West. As the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Jalili led the Iranian delegation in talks with the P5+1 (Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) surrounding Iran’s controversial nuclear program as chief nuclear negotiator.
Jalili studied politics at one of Islamic Republic’s most religious, and most exclusive, training grounds—the Imam Sadegh University. He served in the paramilitary Basij force during the Iran–Iraq War, in which he lost part of his right leg. After the war, Jalili became the inspector general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and later deputy minister for the Americas sections of the ministry.
Reformist candidate Mohammad Khatami’s landslide victory in 1997 brought in a new cadre of moderate reformists to replace the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ deputies and executive political appointees, including Jalili. He soon found a new home at the Office of the Supreme Leader, heading a special section reviewing policy plans.
Jalili returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs following the ascendance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the office of the president. His new post was even more glamorous than the positions he previously held: deputy minister for Europe and the Americas.
With the nuclear negotiations underway, Jalili was appointed by the Supreme Leader to replace Ali Larijani as Iran’s chief negotiator. Jalili’s report card as Iran’s nuclear delegate is marked by Iran’s unwillingness to address the international community’s concerns and unprecedented US, EU and UN Security Council sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Despite increasing pressure on Tehran over its nuclear program, Jalili’s performance—maintaining a hard line and a policy of ‘resistance’—has pleased Iran’s supreme leader and has kept Jalili in the job.
Many observers believe that Jalili is the preferred candidate of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the military/security complex—a group of organizations that include the IRGC, the Basij militia, and other security and coercive apparatuses. At a campaign event in Tehran, Jalili was asked by a supporter to swear to God and on the Qu'ran that he was willing to sacrifice his life for the supreme leader. He took the oath, displaying his absolute loyalty to the leader and his belief in the supremacy of the velayat-e faqih [governance by the supreme leader] in the Islamic Republic.
Jalili also has close ties to one of Iran’s most hardline clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi. But what Jalili lacks is ties to the traditional clergy, and to the urban middle classes of Iran. He is believed to be a hardliner socially, economically and politically. In a number of televised debates between presidential candidates, Jalili has maintained a hard line—one defined by his profound (and at times extreme) religious values, his uncompromising belief in ‘resistance’ against the West, and his disregard for the dire political and economic conditions in Iran.
Ali-Akbar Velayati is one of Iran’s best-known political figures. He was Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs for sixteen years—first in the cabinet of former Prime Minister (and now incarcerated Green Movement leader) Mir Hossein Mousavi, and later in the administration of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Despite this, Velayati has always been a Khamenei man. His appointment to the Mousavi cabinet was at the insistence of then-president Khamenei. After leaving the ministry, Velayati found a new home at the Office of the Supreme Leader and became Khamenei’s chief advisor on foreign policy.
While Velayati is not believed to be a frontrunner, he has some support among the more traditionally-minded clergy, and his ties to the supreme leader may yet land him the presidency on June 14. It is possible that the leader could use a man like Velayati, someone with unrivaled foreign policy experience and almost three decades of proven loyalty to the person of the ayatollah. His potential victory, while considered to be a long shot, would not be a shocking surprise.
In a regime dominated by the clergy, Hassan Rouhani is the only cleric who received the Guardian Council’s approval to run in the election. His presence in Iran’s political landscape dates back to the early days of the revolution, when he was in charge of purging and reorganizing the armed forces. He was subsequently elected to parliament, later becoming deputy speaker in the fourth and fifth parliaments. Rouhani led Iran’s Supreme National Security Council under Presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami, acting in a role similar to that of National Security Advisor in the US system, and represented Iran as chief nuclear negotiator under Khatami.
A skilled orator, Rouhani has performed well in the debates. His sharp criticism of the policies of the past eight years and his intimate ties to Hashemi Rafsanjani have made him a strong candidate among the critics of the existing system. On June 10—four days before the elections—Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice-president in the Khatami administration, dropped out of the race in favor of Rouhani in order to prevent splitting the moderate and the reformist votes.
Tehran’s current mayor, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, was believed to be the supreme leader’s man in the 2005 election—but to everyone’s surprise, his predecessor in the job, a then-unknown, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, emerged as the victor.
Qalibaf spent of most of his adult life in the IRGC. He was the commander of IRGC’s economic nerve center, the Khatam Al-Anbis base, for three years, and was later appointed by Khamenei to command the IRGC’s air force. His stellar performance at the IRGC convinced the supreme leader to appoint Qalibaf as chief of Iran’s police forces, a role that has become a point of controversy. Qalibaf is believed to have played a major role in suppressing the second student uprisings that took place in 2000, a role that he now strongly denies.
The general and the funny one
Iran’s remaining two presidential candidates are former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei and a former cabinet minister known for his inflammatory remarks, Mohammad Qarazi.
These candidates have failed to attract much popular support. This is Rezaei’s third presidential campaign, and so far it has not been any more successful than the last two, neither of which was met with great public enthusiasm.
Qarazi is virtually a single-issue candidate, railing against Iran’s high rate of inflation. Despite the economic hardship this has caused to many Iranians, his position has not led to a large following from the public, except as a figure for mockery: Qarazi’s angry rants have gone viral on social media, and have landed him the title of Iran’s “funniest presidential candidate.”
Perhaps Qarazi’s greatest contribution in this campaign, after 16 years away from public life (his ministerial career ended at the end of the Hashemi Rafsanjani administration), has been that he has was a source of entertainment for the Iranian people. He has put a few smiles on their faces in the past few weeks—smiles that are desperately needed in a country hit hard by sanctions and with an uncertain political future.