Iran presidential candidates are not just shades of grey between 'yes men'

With two weeks left until Iran's presidential elections, the race has been narrowed down to just eight candidates. Michael Theodoulou reports

Iranian women hold posters of presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, the country's top nuclear negotiator, at a campaign rally for his female supporters in Tehran.
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The script had a familiar ring. At his first campaign rally, Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, vowed to pursue a policy of "resistance" against the West if he won the presidential election on June 14.
"The more unyielding we are, the less greedy the enemy will be," he told a cheering crowd of 3,000 last Friday, most of them students and war veterans who chanted: "No compromise, no surrender, we are Jalili's companions."
And, referring to Israel, Mr Jalili declared, "we are seeking to dry up the roots of the Zionist regime".
Mr Jalili echoed the man he hopes to replace: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who must stand down after eight stormy years, during which he alienated Iran's ruling clerics and antagonised the West.
Mr Jalili, 47, however, is a loyal and obedient acolyte of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, all eight presidential hopefuls - winnowed from nearly 700 who registered - are staunch and trusted allies of the septuagenarian ayatollah.
None of those who may have posed a challenge to his absolute authority were allowed to stand.
Even Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate two-time former president and founding father of the Islamic republic, was disqualified.
Instead, the narrow slate of approved candidates includes a politician whose daughter is married to one of Mr Khamenei's sons, a senior foreign policy adviser of the ayatollah and a former police chief he appointed.
To western eyes, Iran's presidential race may now seem merely to be a contest of various shades of grey between "yes men" of the supreme leader.
Iran's electorate, although embittered and disillusioned, is by necessity more discerning.
While voters realise that a real contest over the direction of their country is no longer possible, many see significant differences between the candidates who could have an impact on their daily lives.
To say there is no difference between them is like saying there was no difference between the United States president, Barack Obama, and his unsuccessful Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.
Sir Richard Dalton, Britain's ambassador to Iran from 2002 to 2006, agreed. "All are loyal to the system, but in terms of personalities, background and experience, there are distinctions and differences between the candidates."
Iran's presidents have a big say in running the economy - the main concern of Iranian voters - and can indirectly influence nuclear and foreign policy, which are the purview of the supreme leader.
Mr Jalili, by far the most hardline of the eight contenders, is seemingly emerging as the front-runner. If so, Ms Farhi said, "that would suggest the conservative establishment has priorities other than dealing with Iran's ailing economy - a prime concern for voters - which is in dire need of better management". Mr Jalili, she added, "lacks experience in this field".
Mr Jalili, however, has pledged to use his experience in nuclear talks with six world powers, including the US, to pursue the same policy of uncompromising "resistance" to western demands if he is elected.
"The Islamic Republic has created a capacity that enables it to challenge the big powers," he boasted on state television this week. Iran "sits at the negotiating table ... and, at the end, it is those six powers which retreat" from their positions.
By contrast, another candidate, Hassan Rowhani, could change the tone if not the substance of Iran's nuclear diplomacy if he were elected. A 65-year-old cleric, he is the most prominent moderate candidate in the election, a pragmatic centrist close to both Mr Rafsanjani and the supreme leader.
As Iran's chief nuclear negotiator between 2003 and 2005, Mr Rowhani oversaw an agreement with European powers to briefly suspend Iran's fledgling uranium-enrichment activities. He is now the candidate most open to talks with the US, insisting he would base Iran's foreign policy on engagement, even of "enemies".
This week he fended off accusations by Mr Jalili and other hardliners that he was too soft in nuclear negotiations a decade ago. In a spirited interview on state television, Mr Rowhani insisted that under his stewardship Iran was able to continue important nuclear work while he defused the threat of an American military attack. Nor during his tenure did Iran provoke the draconian sanctions that are now crippling its economy, he argued.
Mr Rowhani, who is fluent in English, Arabic, German, Russian and French, stands a chance if Mr Rafsanjani and the popular former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, another key ally, endorse him - as seems likely.
But Mr Khamenei's world view is more in tune with that of Mr Jalili's, which was forged on the front lines of Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s, where he lost his lower right leg. At university, Mr Jalili wrote his doctoral dissertation on the foreign policy of the Prophet Mohammed.
Rather than Mr Rowhani, Mr Jalili's main competitor is likely to be a fellow conservative and war veteran, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, 52. Alone among the five conservatives on the ballot, the former national police chief has charisma and, as the long-serving mayor of Tehran, a sprawling city of 12 million people, proven popularity and management skills.
Meanwhile, there is intriguing Iranian media speculation that Mr Jalili is really a "stealth candidate" for Mr Ahmadinejad, whose chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, failed to clear the vetting process. Others counter that such speculation is aimed at undermining Mr Jalili's candidacy by associating him Mr Ahmadinejad, who is unpopular with Iran's ruling clerics and many fellow hardliners.
Which way Iran's conservative leadership swings its vote at the final stage will be critical. Mr Khamenei is officially neutral, but a tacit nod from him in favour of one candidate will mobilise a bloc vote by the Revolutionary Guards and its affiliated Basij militia behind the anointed contender, although previous elections show a significant minority might not heed such direction.
Mr Khamenei also has two other horses in the race. One is his veteran foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, 68. The other is Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, also 68, a former parliamentary speaker whose daughter is married to the supreme leader's influential son, Mojtaba.
Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollahs' Democracy, argued it would presumptuous to view the election as simply a rubber stamp for the authority of the supreme leader and Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
"Iranians appreciate that there is a world of difference in politics between bad and worse," he wrote last week in Foreign Affairs, a US journal. "Even if they feel like holding their noses as they cast a ballot, they will, in all probability, still go to the polls."
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