With a little less than two weeks until the presidential elections in Iran, the election propaganda train is moving full steam ahead. The removal of the “colorful” candidates, who could have made the elections process in Iran interesting, has left the arena with lackluster presidential hopefuls. They can be divided broadly into three groups: The first includes Saeed Jalili, the leader in some of the polls and the man considered to be the Supreme Leader’s favorite (just as Ahmadinejad was in the run up to the June 2009 elections); the second group is the conservative 2+1 (Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati and Gholam Ali Haddad Adel), and the third group is made up of candidates viewed as pragmatists – Hassan Rouhani (considered compatible with Rafsanjani), Mohammad Reza Aref, Mohammad Gharazi and, finally, Mohsen Rezaee, former IRGC Commander.
Last weekend marked the first televised debate between the candidates, and it focused on the economy. The dull debate centered on the candidates’ promises for a better future, scathing criticism of the previous government’s performance in terms of managing Iran’s economic policy and emphasized that “if I am elected,” I will first address the despair and maladies of the Iranian economy to benefit the Iranian people.
While the economic issue is front and center in the elections, the more loaded question relates to Iran’s foreign policy in general and specifically the nuclear issue. While the conservative candidates, including Saeed Jalili, present a dogmatic and uncompromising line as far as Iran’s foreign policy and nuclear program go, the “pragmatic” candidates demonstrate a willingness to turn a new leaf in the country’s foreign policy and conduct nuclear negotiations under a calmer atmosphere.
It should be stressed that the main dispute is between Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s representative in the nuclear talks with the West, and Hassan Rouhani, who served in the same positions when Mohammad Khatami was president of Iran. Both sides are attacking the nuclear negotiation strategies employed in the talks with the West. Rouhani (on whose “watch” Iran agreed to suspend enrichment) blames Jalili (and Ahmadinejad), saying that their hardline approach has led to Iran’s isolation and the resolutions against it by the UN Security Council as well as the sanctions that have been imposed on the country, which have led to the downward spiral of its economy. Rouhani claims that while during his tenure Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment, it was actually then that the groundwork was laid, quietly and modestly, for development of Iran’s nuclear abilities, away from the watchful eye of the international community.
Jalili, and the far-reaching propaganda machine he has working in almost every media and social media outlet, argued that Rouhani’s conciliatory approach and the reformist Iranian governments (led by Rafsanjani and Khatami) indicated that they were willing to compromise with the West, and in doing so harmed Iran’s image in the region and its current steadfast stance against the West – under the government of Ahmadinejad (who has fallen out of the Supreme Leader’s grace) and the direction of the Supreme Leader Khameinei, is establishing its regional status as the only player that is challenging the West. Iran’s dramatic advances in its nuclear program are evidence of such.
The discourse about the nuclear issue in the elections propaganda is interesting and gives us a glimpse “behind the scenes” of the decision-making process in Iran on tactical issues regarding nuclear negotiations. In view of this, several Iranian websites have criticized the disclosure and use the various candidates (particularly Jalili and Rouhani) are making of their positions as nuclear negotiators in their propaganda. The popular website, Alef, disparagingly asks, “If Ali Larijani (Chairman of the Majlis, who served in the same position as Jalili and Rouhani) were to join the race, would other security matters be disclosed?” Alef maintains that the public discussion of the nuclear program reveals more and more aspects of the program and Iran’s state secrets to the international community and demands that this issue be immediately removed “from the elections propaganda table.” It summarizes that “the elections are not a referendum on the nuclear talks.”
In short, Rouhani and Jalili are revealing both sides of the Iranian negotiating tactics on the nuclear issue. These tactics are complementary and were derived from the geostrategic circumstances in the periods in which they were employed. Rouhani led the negotiations after the US war to liberate Iraq, a time at which caution was called for and defiance could have led to the continuation of the war against terror in Iraq into Iran, which had previously been defined by Bush as the Axis of Evil (2002), a concept that has been used to refer to Iran ever since. In contrast, throughout Jalili’s tenure (2007 to the present), Iran has felt more secure as the war against terror has moved away from it and as the status of the US in the region has grown weaker.
Regardless, the influence of the next president of Iran, no matter who is elected, on the nuclear negotiations is minimal, and the matter is in the hands of the Supreme Leader and IRGC. One thing, however, is clear. Iran’s strategy in the nuclear negotiations has brought it to a situation in which the decision to make a nuclear bomb is its and its alone. The Iranian negotiators, be they Rouhani, Larijani or Jalili, have bought Iran enough time to reach the point where, if it so chooses, it can cross the line in terms of its nuclear capability.