Until recently — and perhaps still — the dominant Western narrative of the Iranian presidential election was that the candidates are vying for the supreme leader's rather than people’s support. The underlying assumption is that candidates seek Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s approval, as he supposedly decides who’s going to be the next president.
While it is true that all candidates emphasize their commitment to the leader, there is a need to understand the varied reasons for this.
For hopefuls such as Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf and Reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref, the objective is to ease suspicions among powerful conservatives about their loyalty to the nezaam, or system.
Other candidates have gone beyond emphasizing mere loyalty to the supreme leader and have sought to portray themselves as his favored candidate. Why? What is the motivation for trying to create the image of being Khamenei’s favorite?
As I have explained in the past, it is conventional wisdom in Tehran that whoever succeeds in portraying himself as the leader’s candidate has the votes of 12 million committed followers. For hopefuls without broad bases of their own, the fastest route to secure a substantial number of votes is thus to position themselves as the candidate closest to Khamenei.
Nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili’s campaign kicked off in Istanbul last month, days before the Guardian Council announced the final list of candidates. Seasoned Iran observer Farideh Farhi argues that this was due to his understanding of how “foreign press and diaspora punditry works its way back into Iranian politics.” Seemingly playing into the Western narrative of the elections, Jalili managed to establish the perception that he’s a frontrunner by expressing views assumed to be close to that of the leader. Strikingly, the front-runner perception was secured even though he has never held any elected or executive office.
In Iran, Jalili’s image-management strategy has revolved around the assumption that a good offense is the best defense. A glaring example of this approach is a video recently produced by his campaign that targets former nuclear negotiator and rival hopeful Hassan Rouhani.
The video features clips in which Jalili’s deputy and campaign chief Ali Bagheri is seen criticizing Rouhani’s approach to nuclear negotiations. More striking than Jalili’s absence in his own campaign video is how most of the six-minute clip is made up of statements by the supreme leader tailored to back Bagheri’s criticism.
Make no mistake; Ayatollah Khamenei’s personal views are probably more in line with Principlism than Reformism. But does this mean that he is positioning himself behind a favorite candidate, and if so, is that candidate Saeed Jalili?
Speaking on the anniversary of the passing of late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on June 4, days after the Jalili campaign’s release of the clip, the leader seemed to use the occasion to set things straight.
Apparently responding to Jalili’s campaign video and efforts to shape the election narrative abroad, Khamenei forcefully stated that “some foreign media with intent and bias attempt to connect my speeches to some candidates, but these speeches are not directed at a specific candidate or candidates, but at all the candidates.” Khamenei went on to emphasize the crux of the elections in his view: “Every vote that the people cast into the ballot box is primarily a vote of confidence for the Islamic Republic."
Moreover, the leader implored candidates to behave in a certain way so they "are not forced to blame things on other people under different pretexts." This statement is nothing new or particularly intriguing. What is striking about it, however, is how its tone mirrors statements made by Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf in a televised election program on May 29. Referring to how previous presidents have blamed others for their shortcomings, the Tehran mayor stated that “As president, I must know that I can’t say ‘they put a stick in my wheel and didn’t let me do my job’ … [this] has no meaning.” Ghalibaf further argued that claiming “that things can’t be done based on [the constitution] is an excuse, and the people are aware of it.” Indeed, other parts of Khamenei’s speech, including comments on the importance of appreciating the efforts of previous governments, went hand in glove with Ghalibaf’s statements on May 29.
Jalili’s effort to portray himself as Khamenei’s favored candidate took a further battering three days later, when the candidates gathered for their third televised debate on June 7. After having been largely silent on Jalili’s job performance, Ali Akbar Velayati, the leader’s top foreign-policy advisor, bluntly stated that “What people are seeing, Mr. Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exist. The art of diplomacy is to preserve our nuclear rights, not to see sanctions increase." Interestingly, Velayati went on to reportedly secure the support of the influential Qom Seminary Scholars Association the following day.
It is against the backdrop of this effort to portray himself as the leader’s favored candidate that one should view Jalili’s sudden coining of the term “hesitation current” after Friday’s debate, apparently in reference to Velayati and other pragmatic conservatives. In Jalili’s new lingo, the “hesitation current” is threatening Iran after the “deviation current” (the Ahmadinejad/Mashaei camp) and the “sedition” (Reformists).
In sum, before making assumptions about Khamenei having a favored candidate — and the identity of that person — observers would be wise to consider whether certain candidates are posturing themselves to fit that mold. More importantly, as always, the first question that needs to be asked is who benefits from the situation at hand. For now, the race for the presidency is wide open.
Mohammad Ali Shabani is a doctoral researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and editor of the Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs. He has worked in media organizations and think tanks in Iran. On Twitter: @mashabani