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The Outside-In Campaign Strategy of Iran’s Nuclear Negotiator

Saeed Jalili has been getting a lot of press lately – not for his day job, as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, or even for the responsibilities that come with it, as the lead negotiator on the nuclear issue with the United States and its international partners. Rather, this forty-something bureaucrat has emerged as the front-runner in the contest to succeed the notorious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the next president of the Islamic Republic.

Conventional wisdom on Iran has a decidedly mixed track record, but it’s easy to appreciate why Jalili is seen as leading the pack that has gotten the nod from Iran’s Guardians’ Council. Here’s a hint: it’s not a reflection of charismatic campaign skills or a strong track record on the issues, like the economy, that really matter to Iranians. Rather, Jalili is seen the most likely contender because he appears to optimally fulfill the requirements of the only voter who really matters: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He fought in one of the most brutal battles of the long war with Iraq, losing part of his right leg in the process, and later completed his doctorate in political science at a hard-line Iranian university, where his dissertation focused on the diplomacy of the prophet Mohammad. This was a subject he would later propound upon in his first meeting with Western nuclear negotiators.

He has worked directly for Khamenei, as director-general of the supreme leader’s influential office. He was plucked from relative obscurity six years ago to coordinate Iran’s national security strategies and lead the nuclear negotiations with the West. Along the way, Jalili earned a reputation for piety, honesty, and absolute fidelity to the authority of the Supreme Leader. His continuing role as the chief nuclear negotiator makes it unlikely, in my opinion at least, that the leadership would condone a disappointing showing in the polls. For all these reasons, he has been considered for many months a possible successor to Ahmadinejad, and a number of Iranian conservative politicians either withdrew in his favor or indicated that they would consider doing so.

In a sense, Jalili is Ahmadinejad 2.0, a younger-generation hardliner who boasts total commitment to the ideals of the revolution, a limited national profile and no serious power base within the establishment, making him perfectly subservient to Khamenei. Ahmadinejad proved to be a disastrous pick on almost every basis— beyond his chaotic economic policies and proclivity for alienating the international community, the president’s devout beliefs proved a little too messianic for the traditionalist clergy and he overreached in asserting his own ambitions. The sequel is softer-spoken, more carefully vetted, and more reliable. Still, Khamenei’s willingness to take a chance on another young acolyte after such a divisive experience underscores the extent to which the aging revolutionary recognizes the need for generational change within the leadership if the Islamic Republic is to endure.

Although he promises to be more docile than Ahmadinejad, Jalili may yet prove capable of innovation. The most interesting dimension of his candidacy to date is his apparent strategy, which is relying not simply on the top-down influence of Khamenei, but also on an appeal to the international media, presumably as a means of bolstering his stature at home. The man who has reportedly brought turgid discourse to new heights in his diplomatic exchanges with American and international negotiators is suddenly turning on the charm for the foreign press. Over the past week, he has conducted interviews with the Financial Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and he (or someone on his staff) has become a prolific tweeter in both Persian and English. (The English-language tweets, whose odd cadence suggests an overfamiliarity with auto-translate programs, are almost poetic in their inanity.) He has an official campaign website, a Facebook page, a Google Plus site and an Instagram account, as well as a host of friendly aggregator sites. If the world uncovers an authorized Jalili Tumblr blog, it won’t come as much of a surprise.

This frantic deployment of social media— most of the sites and tweets appear to be about two weeks old— and international journalists would be comical if it weren’t being undertaken on behalf of a government that has waged a lengthy and often successful campaign to harass bloggers and inhibit its citizens’ access to the internet and a free press. Setting that gaping hypocrisy aside, it says something about Iran’s complicated relationship with the world that even the scion of a state that inveighs against the prevailing order still craves international legitimation as a statesmen. Ultimately, the sophistication of Jalili’s campaign is indicative of a significant investment of time and energy, and it reflects, presumably, a real determination to win the presidency. Iranians and the world must surely hope that Jalili’s embrace of modernity in service of his presidential ambitions will extend to a more prudent approach to governing Iran if and when he actually assumes the office. 

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