Will Iran’s Presidential Election Prove A Jalili Juggernaut?

May 29, 2013

The international press coverage of the upcoming Iranian presidential election is veering toward a worrisome pattern of unanimity. The initial focus on the disqualifications of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and current presidential advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei faded quickly as their exclusions from the June 14th ballot have yet to generate the anticipated backlash. Now, the conventional wisdom has declared a frontrunner in nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. The only hitch here is that the conventional wisdom has a pretty lousy track record of predicting Iranian politics.

As I wrote last week, the case for Jalili’s inevitability is a reasonably strong one: in an election that will be strenuously orchestrated by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the winner is likely to be modest, devout, and devoid of any political intuition or networks that could threaten Khamenei’s centrality or shake the theocratic foundation of the regime. Jalili certainly fits this bill to a tee; in fact, he appears to have been groomed for this very moment. His bonafides are strengthened by his longstanding relationship with Khamenei and the Supreme Leader’s role in vaulting Jalili from bureaucratic anonymity to a position of prominence and symbolic importance, if not actual authority. And the fact that Jalili, who is both a newcomer to electoral politics and a famously tedious negotiator, has gone on a charm offensive with the assiduous support of a slick, feisty campaign machine adds a whiff of certitude to the whole exercise. He also recently secured the endorsement of hardline cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, although there are some who suggest this may hurt his election prospects more than it helps.

Still, it may just be a little early to start planning the Jalili victory party. At least one influential Iranian conservative has publically cast doubt on Jalili’s credentials to serve as president, suggesting that rumors of a cakewalk may in fact be exaggerated. Only a few days ago, parliamentary leader Mohammad Reza Bahonar, a persistent skeptic of Jalili, offered a withering take on the nuclear negotiator’s bid for the system’s second highest office, and pointedly insisted that the next president not resemble an ‘uncut melon,’ or unknown quantity.

The emerging Jalili hype reflects a successful strategy around the candidate himself to bill his prospects as preordained. It also highlights the virtual echo chamber that is Iran analysis today. For those of us observing Iran from a distance, hard evidence of the Supreme Leader’s preferences tends to be in short supply. Other than an obvious ideological affinity and the apparent logic behind his ascension, we are all operating on the basis of an increasingly widespread hunch that the race is stacked in Jalili’s favor. Groupthink may have its merits, but it has led to famously inaccurate conclusions about Iran. Back in 2005, it was nearly impossible to convince some senior Bush Administration officials that the entire contest hadn’t been rigged on behalf of Rafsanjani, explicitly as a means of undermining U.S. diplomacy on the nuclear issue. 

To be fair, very few have been immune to such mistaken forecasts, including the most seasoned analysts within Iran. This is partially a function of the electoral unpredictability that has become the hallmark of Iranian elections over the past 15 years. Even with unprecedented security measures in place, the alchemy of campaign season can have unanticipated consequences, as with the late-game fervor that erupted around the rather somber Mir Husayn Musavi in 2009. This campaign is almost certain to be more subdued, but with a little more than two weeks to go, the dynamics of the race are still crystallizing. One or more of the eight approved candidates may yet withdraw, in concert with earlier coalition agreements, to strengthen the hand of a perceived contender.  

Beyond the tantalizing possibility of another unexpected outcome in Iran, the real issue is that distance magnifies the inherent complications of discerning significant patterns in a complex political system. All of the political bolts from the blue within the Islamic Republic— the revolution, the reform movement, the rise and apparent fall of Ahmadinejad— were literally years in the making, and might have been more readily anticipated by outside observers had we understood what to look for. Today, there is much to suggest that Jalili is just such a phenomenon, the product of careful cultivation rather than an unexpected surge. However, it is also equally possible that we are fighting the last war, analytically speaking, and imposing a familiar narrative to make sense of political dynamics that remain difficult to decipher.

All this is a long way of underscoring the need to avoid the temptation to jump too quickly on the Jalili bandwagon, and the corresponding importance of paying careful attention to the Gang of Seven who make up his rivals in this race. Check back later today for more on each of the men vying to break out of also-ran status.